April 26, 2022—(BRONX, NY)—Diagnosing Alzheimer's disease can be a complex and time-consuming process, requiring evaluations ranging from brain scans to cognitive and lab tests to reviews of medical history and symptoms. Simpler and faster ways to diagnose the disease are urgently needed.
Now, researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine have been awarded a five-year, $4.2 million National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to detect behavioral markers for Alzheimer’s that are present early in the course of the disease, before it can be clinically diagnosed. Results could help scientists identify people at risk for Alzheimer’s and related problems, such as falls, and lead to new preventive strategies.
Examining Sensory Systems
Jeannette Mahoney, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Saul R. Korey Department of Neurology at Einstein, leads the investigation. Her previous studies suggest that early, or preclinical, Alzheimer’s disease may stem from disruptions in brain regions that process multisensory information and allow us to engage in functions of daily living such as walking. In the current grant, Dr. Mahoney and colleagues will study older adults to determine how well two key sensory systems—our visual and somatosensory (touch) systems—interact with each other.
“Growing evidence suggests that Alzheimer’s pathology appears in the brain’s sensory areas long before showing up in regions involved in memory,” Dr. Mahoney said. “We rely on these sensory brain areas to integrate visual and other sensory inputs that allow us to perform activities of daily living, such as walking. Using non-invasive techniques, we hope to discover whether novel behavioral indicators can identify people who have pre-clinical Alzheimer’s disease. Such people also face an increased risk for falls—a major concern for seniors, since they can cause serious injury or injury-related death, and also reduce quality of life.”
Detecting Sensory Integration Problems
The study will involve 208 people aged 65 and over, divided into two groups: those with and without pre-clinical Alzheimer’s disease, as diagnosed through cognitive tests and blood tests looking for the presence of amyloid beta, a protein that appears to contribute to Alzheimer’s disease.
If the multisensory deficits that we detect are modifiable, then strengthening them through sensory exercises may enable us to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s and prevent serious mobility problems such as falls.
Jeannette Mahoney, Ph.D.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) will assess how well participants’ neural brain circuits integrate vision and touch. While they’re undergoing neuroimaging testing, participants will be asked to respond quickly to anything they see and/or feel. In addition, researchers will give participants memory and executive function tests and assess their gait and mobility.
“Our central hypothesis,” said Dr. Mahoney, “is that those people with preclinical Alzheimer’s will have worse outcomes on our tests—which would mean that the presence of multisensory deficits can serve as valid and readily obtainable indicators of early disease. If the multisensory deficits that we detect are modifiable, then future studies will allow us to determine whether strengthening multisensory integration through sensory exercises enables us to slow the progression of Alzheimer’s and potentially prevent serious mobility problems like falls.”
The grant, “Visual-somatosensory integration as a novel marker of Alzheimer’s disease,” is funded by the National Institute on Aging, part of the NIH (1R01AG075679).