Researchers Find Brain Changes In Babies At Risk For Alzheimer's

Nov 25, 2013

Scientists have come a step closer to understanding when the signs of Alzheimer’s begin. Brown University researchers and their colleagues have found some of the earliest evidence yet.

Brown University researchers say they are close to determining whether or not a person will be at risk for Alzheimer's as early as infancy.

Babies with the APOE-E4 gene developed a protective structure called myelin more quickly, but it may not be as protective as babies' without the E4 gene.
Credit Advanced Baby Imaging Lab / Brown University

Scientists know that carrying a particular gene called APOE-04 puts you at a slightly higher risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. They also know quite a bit about what an adult’s diseased brain looks like. But what happens between the time you’re born with that higher risk and how and when you develop the disease isn’t so clear. So researcher Sean Deoni at Brown University and colleagues at the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Arizona scanned 162 healthy babies’ brains to learn more. Sixty of them had the risk gene. And the researchers found some differences in the babies’ brains, differences that might give Alzheimers a better foothold later in life. It’s the earliest age at which scientists have been able to detect these differences. But Deoni says it’s just a snapshot in time, and doesn’t predict whether the children will definitely develop Alzheimer's.

“So what we’d like to be able to do is follow the individual kids as they get older," said Deoni. "There’s going to be a range in developmental rate, so perhaps that might be more predictive as well.”

Alzheimer’s Association scientific programs director Keith Fargo also reviewed the study. He says the results only show a moment in time. But they do give us the earliest picture yet of the kind of brain differences that could play a role in the disease.

“So if we can begin to understand what changes in the brain in people who ultimately develop Alzheimer's disease," said Fargo, "it may give us clues as to how we can prevent that from occurring in the first place.”

The baby brain imaging study is out now in the journal JAMA Neurology.