Could a simple neck ultrasound be the key to an early dementia diagnosis?
That’s what researchers at the University College London (UCL) in England are trying to find out. And they may be on to something.
Scientists there recently completed an almost two-decade-long study in order to measure how intense the pulse is when it travels to the brain and what, if any, correlation there is between pulse intensity and cognitive decline. The goal was to see if there’s a way to diagnose dementia before people start to display symptoms.
“Dementia is the end result of decades of damage, so by the time people get dementia it’s too late to do anything,” Dr. Scott Chiesa, a researcher from UCL, told the BBC. “What we’re trying to say is you need to get in as early as possible, identify a way to see who’s actually progressing towards possibly getting dementia and target them.”
Using ultrasound machines, researchers scanned the necks of 3,191 participants in 2002 and then monitored their memory and problem-solving abilities for the next 15 years.
What they discovered is a bit, well, intense. Participants who had the greatest extent of powerful, strong pulses were found to have greater mental decline over the years than those with less intense pulses. Intense pulses have been found to cause structural damage to the brain and even minor bleeds known as “mini-strokes,” researchers said.
In fact, the study found that the top quarter of participants with the highest pulses showed 50 percent more cognitive decline (equal to about one-and-a-half years) over the next decade than the rest of the participants.
“What we do know is that the blood supply in the brain is incredibly important and that maintaining a healthy heart and blood pressure is associated with a lower risk of developing dementia,” Dr. Carol Routledge, director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, told the BBC.
Although the study’s results could be a new piece to the dementia-diagnosis puzzle, the research did not contain data on which of the study’s participants went on to develop dementia. Routledge says it is not clear if the scan could improve the diagnosis of dementia.
And even though the study was 15 years long, researchers aren’t quite done yet.
Scientists plan to use the MRI scans to see if structural and functional changes in the brain can help explain their cognitive decline and to see if the scan improves predictive risk scores for dementia.