July 14th, 2010
11:05 AM ET

How Alzheimer's gets diagnosed may change

Scientists are seeking to revamp the way that Alzheimer's disease gets diagnosed, for the first time in 25 years.

Since the current criteria for diagnosing Alzheimer's were put forth in 1984, they have been in wide use and virtually unchanged, despite scientific advances  in the last two decades.

The proposed criteria, presented at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference on Alzheimer's Disease 2010 on Tuesday, would better reflect the various stages of the disease, as well as the Alzheimer's disease biomarkers that have been developed, said the Alzheimer's Association's chief medical and scientific officer William Thies in a statement. Biomarkers indicate signs of Alzheimer's in the brain and can be found with  MRI scans, PET imaging  and tests of cerebrospinal fluid.

According to the New York Times, that means that even people without obvious symptoms such as memory problems could have brain scans and other tests to detect signs of Alzheimer's.

Some experts predict that the number of people with a diagnosis of Alzheimer's will double or even triple, if these guidelines go into effect, the Times reported. Drug companies developing drugs to combat Alzheimer's could also benefit from the changes, the paper said.

The advances that Alzheimer's research has seen since 1984 include the recognition of changes in the brain driven by Alzheimer's - but also that some people don't show symptoms of dementia even though they have these brain changes, the Alzheimer's Association said. Also, scientists did not have a good understanding of non-Alzheimer's dementia in 1984; today, there is greater knowledge of other kinds of dementia.

After the conference, the National Institutes on Aging and the Alzheimer's Association will seek feedback through this website. Then, the guidelines would have to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, and validated through clinical trials.

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