07 August 2010

Family history of Alzheimer's may help search for a cure

Greg Kalkwarf was a teenager when his grandfather told him and his brother, with increasing anger and frustration, "Dean, get out there and milk the cows!"

There were indeed cows at his grandparents' farm, but Dean -- Kalkwarf 's uncle -- wasn't there, and the grandchildren weren't supposed to be milking them.

"The confusion or the memory loss of Alzheimer's -- now as I look back, it's like, that's what was going on," said Kalkwarf, 39. His grandfather died from Alzheimer's complications, and now his mother has it at 65. "It's saddening and disheartening to watch someone you love disappear like that," he said.

Kalkwarf is one of many children of the 5.3 million people living with Alzheimer's in the United States who face the terrifying possibility of inheriting a predisposition to the disease. Now there are tests in the works for early detection of brain injury due to Alzheimer's, as well as other biological markers of the disease that can be found with MRI scans, PET imaging and tests of cerebrospinal fluid. Although there are no proven interventions for people without Alzheimer's symptoms, but who may be at risk, neurologists said it is crucial to identify people with early signs of the disease for the purposes of research, so that treatments can be developed when the disease is less severe in the brain.

People like Kalkwarf, who have family histories, aren't certain to get Alzheimer's. But there is a genetic mutation that nearly always predicts early onset Alzheimer's, a rare version of the disease that develops in people ages 30 to 60, according to the National Institute on Aging. The detection of Alzheimer's disease in people with no symptoms is very much a work in progress, said Dr. Allan Levey, professor and chair of neurology at Emory University Medical School.

Greg Kalkwarf and his wife already wonder if their 9-month-old son will one day face issues from Alzheimer's. In the meantime, Kalkwarf's mother is participating in an Alzheimer's study.

"If people are willing to help now, then it's like everybody else who's willing to donate their body to science -- that if we all can give up a little bit, hopefully it helps the next generation," he said.

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