By the time the disease is well along it has usually demolished the brain beyond repair. That's why scientists believe the key to treating Alzheimer's is discovering its earliest stages. "We need to know how to do imaging, we need to know how to do the right psychological testing and match those to the genetics that is actually determining risk for Alzheimer's Disease," says Dr. Tanzi.
So far the research on healthy volunteers as well as people with the disease, has produced tantalizing leads to possible treatments. But what it has accomplished best is diagnosing Alzheimer's at earlier stages, often years before the most serious symptoms. The most effective method of diagnosis is not brain scans or genetic tests but psychological tasks like this one where the volunteer is timed as she connects letters and numbers in order. "It's a surprisingly sensitive test given how trivially easy it seems," says Dr. Blacker. Not so easy is what to tell the patients SU Bridge Because there's no cure, not even treatments to slow the progression of the disease, there's a big debate about when to tell people they're in the early stages of Alzheimer's.
For now the doctors decide on a case by case basis. "It's very frustrating to work with families and patients and be able to tell them this information but not be able to do anything about it," says Dr. Dickson. But the diagnosis has become so common that the Alzheimer's Association has set up a committee of advisors of people who actually have the disease Among the major tasks of this committee is advising doctors on when to tell patients and how to help them cope with a future of Alzheimer's.