Using high-resolution fMRI imaging in patients with Alzheimer's disease and in mouse models of the disease, researchers have clarified three fundamental issues about Alzheimer's: where it starts, why it starts there, and how it spreads.
In addition to advancing understanding of Alzheimer's, the findings could improve early detection of the disease, when drugs may be most effective. The study was published today in the online edition of the journal Nature Neuroscience.
“It has been known for years that Alzheimer's starts in a brain region known as the entorhinal cortex,” said co-senior author Scott A. Small, MD, Boris and Rose Katz Professor of Neurology, professor of radiology, and director of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center.
“But this study is the first to show in living patients that it begins specifically in the lateral entorhinal cortex, or LEC. The LEC is considered to be a gateway to the hippocampus, which plays a key role in the consolidation of long-term memory, among other functions. If the LEC is affected, other aspects of the hippocampus will also be affected.”
The study also shows that, over time, Alzheimer's spreads from the LEC directly to other areas of the cerebral cortex, in particular, the parietal cortex, a brain region involved in various functions, including spatial orientation and navigation. The researchers suspect that Alzheimer's spreads “functionally,” that is, by compromising the function of neurons in the LEC, which then compromises the integrity of neurons in adjoining areas.