TGen: People At Higher Risk For Alzheimer's May Show Memory Changes Decades Earlier

Published: Thursday, June 20, 2019 - 11:43am
Updated: Thursday, June 20, 2019 - 6:00pm
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MARK BRODIE: New research finds people with a higher risk of developing Alzheimer's disease may start showing changes in their memory up to 40 years beforehand. The study, of almost 60,000, people found those with a family history of Alzheimer's do not perform as well as those without that family history on a memory test. Family history has been associated with the risk of developing the disease. With me to talk more about the results is Dr. Matt Huentelman professor of neurogenomics at TGen and senior author of the report. And Matt it seems as though it's a pretty significant finding that someone who could be at higher risk for developing Alzheimer's disease might be showing some kinds of symptoms many years earlier.

MATT HUENTELMAN: Yes, I think it's important though to mention that these aren't necessarily symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. But rather, what we saw is that people who have a family history of Alzheimer's disease might have lower memory performance, even as early as in their 20s, when we compare them to their peers who don't have a family history of Alzheimer's disease.

BRODIE: So that really seems to suggest that if you do have a family history of Alzheimer's disease that could really affect your memory from a pretty young age.

HUENTELMAN: Yes, that's true. And I think that it's interesting to us because it's not something that these individuals might notice. So this doesn't rise to the level of impairing your daily performance or really impacting your daily life. However, if you really test these two groups of people you can see that the ones who have a family history of Alzheimer's disease perform a little bit worse on the memory test.

BRODIE: What kinds of tests are we talking about here? Like, what specifically were you looking at?

HUENTELMAN: In this particular study we were looking at a specific type of memory called verbal memory. We were asking individuals to form new connections between two word pairs and then you had to recall the word pairs when prompted.

BRODIE: Now I imagine that you would be cautious to say that, just having signs of maybe a weakened memory or not a great memory early on does not necessarily mean that you will absolutely develop Alzheimer's disease later on, right?

HUENTELMAN: Yes, I think that's really important for people to realize that we all have good days and bad days with regards to our memory. And certainly the effects that we're finding in our study are really nothing to be concerned with. It's just interesting that there is a difference. So definitely this does not rise to the level of what you would call a clinical memory disorder. It doesn't rise to the level of dementia but there is a difference. And that really is the thing that is brand-new with our work. 

BRODIE: So do you anticipate that this kind of data could impact, I don't want to call them treatments, but maybe things people can do earlier on in life if they have a family history of Alzheimer's disease? And maybe they recognize, that you know, their memory maybe isn't as great as they wish it was.

HUENTELMAN: Well I hope that our report really helps people understand that lifelong health... is, really needs to be a lifelong focus. So, many of the diseases that we are really worried about that are age-related, like Alzheimer's disease for example; the path to avoiding those starts early in life. So adopting a healthy-living lifestyle, eating well, exercising; those are some things which has shown to help decrease your risk for dementia. And I hope that some of this new work just emphasizes to people that those need to start early. We can't start them late in life, as the risk increases, but the earlier you start those the better off the outcome could be.

BRODIE: Do these data, in your mind, strengthen the connection between family history of Alzheimer's and somebody else in that family developing at?

HUENTELMAN: I don't know how much they would strengthen it because it was already known that a family history of Alzheimer's disease does increase your risk for Alzheimer's. I think that these new findings surprised us because they extended how early we might see changes. And you know, again, these are not changes that would lead to a clinical diagnosis but they are changes that you can find when you compare groups that are very similar, with the big difference being one has a family history and one does not.

BRODIE: So what kind of research do you think has to come next to sort of take what you found and then have that work toward, you know, some kind of treatment or early diagnostic tool or something else, that you know, that would help folks either who are more at risk for developing Alzheimer's disease or maybe even folks who've already developed it?

HUENTELMAN: Well certainly one of the new areas that we are focusing on is this area that we call precision aging. It's very similar to what's happening right now in cancer with precision medicine; where patients are getting prescribed drugs specifically to target their cancer, based on the composition of that cancer, the genetics and other aspects of that cancer. We think there is a significant future in precision aging by targeting those aspects of aging that are most relevant to the individual. So what that means is, we might suggest that a certain approach is important for someone with family history of Alzheimer's disease. And then for their friend, who is just like them but has no family history, we might want to focus on different aspects of medicine, for that person, to help them age as best as possible with respect to their brain.

BRODIE: All right, that's Dr. Matt Huentelman, a professor of neurogenomics at TGen. Dr. Huentelman thanks a lot for your time, I appreciate it.

HUENTELMAN: Thank you very much.

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