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Hope for Alzheimer’s detection

world Updated: Jun 24, 2010 23:56 IST

Dr. Daniel Skovronsky sat at a small round table in his corner office, laptop open, waiting for an e-mail message. His right leg jiggled nervously.

A few minutes later, the message arrived — results that showed his tiny start-up company might have overcome one of the biggest obstacles in diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease. It had found a dye and a brain scan that, he said, can show the hallmark plaque building up in the brains of people with the disease.

The findings, which will be presented at an international meeting of the Alzheimer’s Association in Honolulu on July 11, must still be confirmed and approved by the Food and Drug Administration. But if they hold up, it will mean that for the first time doctors would have a reliable way to diagnose the presence of Alzheimer’s in patients with memory problems.

And researchers would have a way to figure out whether drugs are slowing or halting the disease, a step that “will change everyone’s thinking about Alzheimer’s in a dramatic way,” said Dr. Michael Weiner of the University of California, San Francisco, who is not part of the company’s study and directs a federal project to study ways of diagnosing Alzheimer’s.

Still, the long tale behind this finding shows just how difficult this disease is and why progress toward preventing or curing it has been so slow.

Ever since Alzheimer’s disease was described by a German doctor, Alois Alzheimer, in 1906, there was only one way to know for sure that a person had it. A pathologist, examining the brain after death, would see microscopic black freckles, plaque, sticking to brain slices like barnacles. Without plaque, a person with memory loss did not have the disease. There is no treatment yet to stop or slow the progress of Alzheimer’s.

The New York Times