That's what a team of researchers at the Université de Montréal's Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal is trying to find out. The researchers have been working to understand the process behind Alzheimer's Disease and how to ultimately slow it down. But just as importantly, the researchers are trying to tell the difference between the devastating disease and mild cognitive impairment the type of memory loss that researchers say countless numbers of Canadians experience as a normal part of aging.
As part of the investigative work in one of the Institute's laboratories, a sixty-year-old woman wears a cap with a string of electrodes attached to it. Sitting next to her is Dr. Sylvie Belleville a psychologist and researcher at the Institute. As the woman performs a series of memory exercises, Belleville watches the signals recorded on the electroencephalogram (EEG) to try to analyze her memory problems.
Linked to the electrodes is a specialized computer system that enables Dr. Belleville to interpret the electrical energy produced by the woman's neurons. Using this system, researchers can compare the electrical signals emitted by her brain with benchmark signals from a control group. This highly sophisticated equipment makes it possible to conduct important research into the emerging field of event-related potentials and is a highlight of the Institute's human electrophysiology laboratory.
Studies show that persons with a mild cognitive impairment, like Belleville's patient, are 12 times more likely to develop Alzheimer's Disease. Although it's still too early to say there is a definite causal relationship, these studies help researchers detect the first signs of a slowdown in brain activity linked to the preclinical phase of the disease.
"We learn a great deal from seeing even the slightest variations in electrical activity in the human brain when a person is following an object with their eyes, memorizing a telephone number, or figuring out a simple math equation," says Belleville. "Communication between neurons tells us whether some neuronal zones are working normally, slowing down, or not functioning at all. This information is very valuable and could lead to an earlier diagnosis of the disease."
Belleville is certain that this dual approach of EEG and targeted drug therapy will eventually improve the quality of life for persons with Alzheimer's Disease and significantly slow down the onset of the disease's most debilitating symptoms. In short, this research should help improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of Canadians and their families.
Dementia such as Alzheimer's Disease is widely known to cause severe disorientation. Newspapers often contain reports of people, particularly the elderly, who freeze to death in the winter because they cannot remember where they live. These tragic stories illustrate the scope and seriousness of Alzheimer's, a devastating and insidious disease.
Currently, an average of two years elapses between the time the first symptoms of mild cognitive impairment appear and the signs of Alzheimer's Disease are sufficiently advanced for a doctor to confirm the unfortunate diagnosis. In that time, the illness progresses silently, cutting a swath through thousands of key areas in the brain.
"It is extremely important to be able to detect the presence of the disease, even if it is only six months or a year before the onset of the most debilitating symptoms of dementia," says Sylvie Belleville. "If we can do that, we can try not only to slow down its progression, but to also better prepare family members to handle the emotional shock and get the support they need."
Belleville's research has identified some of the components of memory and executive functioning that are affected in the earliest stages of Alzheimer's Disease, even before a diagnosis is made. In addition, the research team has already observed that subjects who exercised specific zones in the brain experienced a return to normal levels of memory ability. Their findings show that elderly persons with or without cognitive impairment can improve their cognitive abilities with the right exercises.
While it is extremely difficult for those who suffer from it, Alzheimer's Disease is just as painful for their families. Ill-prepared and poorly informed, they must suddenly care for persons who are rapidly losing their ability to function. They feel a great sense of despair and can even fall into a depression.
The research at the Université de Montréal's Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal should help to address this long list of problems and could eventually lead to several benefits. Among them: faster identification of persons at risk, improved management of Alzheimer's Disease, better support for caregivers, and more targeted medical intervention.
The Fonds de la recherche en santé du Québec is a public-sector, non-profit agency under the Quebec Department of Research, Science and Technology. In particular, it funds the development of high-quality research infrastructure and focuses on projects that support the acquisition of clinical expertise and the sharing of research nationally and internationally. This project, involving the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal, is one such initiative.
The Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal provides general and specialized geriatric hospital care, and offers residential and long-term care facilities. With 452 beds and a staff of approximately 1,000, the institute's doctors and health care professionals offer quality care, education, and training. The institute also features an internationally renowned gerontology and geriatrics research centre.