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Study: Memory test could point to Alzheimer's risk years in advance

University of Arizona study gave test to those with, without Alzheimer's gene

Alzheimer’s disease is hard to detect early. Changes in the brain may start long before symptoms become apparent. Now, results of a new study show that a memory test could tell doctors who is at risk of developing Alzheimer’s years in advance. 

Jean and Kathy Norris-Wilhelm have been together 22 years. Jean started forgetting things, but it took two years of neurological testing to get an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

Jean said she misses the math classroom where she taught for 18 years.

“But now a lot of it has gone away from me,” Jean added of her memories of that time.

A recently completed study at the University of Arizona showed that what’s called an autobiographical memory test could show who’s at risk.

Neuropsychologist Matt Grilli, director of the Human Memory Lab at the University of Arizona, and his team tested how vividly participants could describe past events.

“It relies on a number of regions to be coordinated and to sort of work together," Grilli said.

Grilli tested two groups of cognitively normal people. Those in one group have a gene that increases risk for Alzheimer’s, and they had a harder time remembering detail. 

“It does tell us that this type of memory testing has promise as a new way of trying to pick up on early signs of Alzheimer’s disease,” Grilli said.

Kathy is excited that this inexpensive non-invasive screening could get more people an early diagnosis. 

“I think having something like this is critical, because the sooner you can get a diagnosis, you can prepare for it.” Kathy said.

Not all of the study participants with the genetic risk factor tested poorly, and not everyone with the gene will develop Alzheimer’s.

Grilli plans to follow participants in this study and has begun another study that includes measuring participants’ brain activity and structure.