Alzheimer’s riddle: Detection gets easier, treatment options still limited

GINA KOLATA

When Awilda Jimenez started forgetting things last year, her husband, Edwin, felt a shiver of dread. Her mother had developed Alzheimer's in her 50s. Could his wife, 61, have it, too?

He learned there was a new brain scan to diagnose the disease and nervously agreed to get her one, secretly hoping it would lay his fears to rest. In June, his wife became what her doctor says is the first private patient in Arizona to have the test.

"The scan was floridly positive," said her doctor, Adam S Fleisher, director of brain imaging at the Banner Alzheimer's Institute in Phoenix.

The Jimenezes have struggled ever since to deal with this devastating news. They are confronting a problem of the new era of Alzheimer's research: The ability to detect the disease has leapt far ahead of treatments. There are none that can stop or even significantly slow the inexorable progression to dementia and death.

Families like the Jimenezes, with no good options, can only ask: Should they live their lives differently, get their affairs in order, join a clinical trial of an experimental drug?

The new brain scan technology, which went on the market in June, is spreading fast. There are already more than 300 hospitals and imaging centres, located in most major metropolitan areas, that are ready to perform the scans, according to Eli Lilly, which sells the tracer used to mark plaque for the scan.

The scans show plaques in the brain — barnaclelike clumps of protein, beta amyloid — that, together with dementia, are the defining feature of Alzheimer's disease. Those who have dementia but do not have excessive plaques do not have Alzheimer's. It is no longer necessary to wait until the person dies and has an autopsy to learn if the brain was studded with plaques.

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