QBI scientists have discovered that magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) could be used to predict the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

The study, published in the journal Neuroimage: Clinical, was led by Professor Elizabeth Coulson and found that people with a shrinking basal forebrain were seven times more likely to have worsened cognitive function within 18 months.

“Existing Alzheimer’s disease drugs try to enhance the function of the degenerating basal forebrain, but often too much damage is already done by the time drugs are administered,” Professor Coulson said.

“If we can give the existing drugs to people earlier, when they first display evidence of a decline in their basal forebrain, even perhaps before they are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, then hopefully those drugs will be more effective.”

Using data from CSIRO’s Australian Imaging, Biomarkers and Lifestyle flagship study of ageing, the researchers analysed 223 elderly subjects.

Currently more than 330,000 Australians suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, and are primarily treated with cholinergic drugs that target the basal forebrain, which degenerates with the condition.

In large clinical trials, cholinergic drugs used to treat Alzheimer’s disease provide benefit, but effects are often transient and mild; however, some patients appear to benefit from them for many years.

Dr Eamonn Eeles, a geriatrician and Head of Research: Internal Medicine Services, at The Prince Charles Hospital said it is important to improve the impact of cholinergic drugs by delivering them to patients who are most likely to benefit, including giving them to patients earlier.

“Currently we have no way of identifying patients with Alzheimer’s disease who are most likely to benefit from treatment, and a more nuanced approach is needed,” Dr Eeles said.

“Not just potentially more cost-effective, this MRI method would help individualise therapy by identifying those most likely to respond to treatment, target existing drugs in these patients and improve clinical outcomes.”

The study was a collaboration between QBI, CSIRO, Austin Health Melbourne and the University of Melbourne.