Researchers have found that a gene linked to Alzheimer's disease may begin to show its consequences on brain formation and mental acuity as early as preschool. HealthDay reports that the gene is apolipoprotein E (APOE), and scientists have known for many years that it was related to the risk of developing Alzheimer's.
Those who carry a strain of this gene, e4, have a higher risk than average. Young people who have the e4 variant, according to brain scans, presented slower brain development in specific areas. These brain areas are the same regions that begin to deteriorate in people with the disease, according to lead researcher Dr. Linda Chang, a neurologist at the University of Hawaii.
Kids with the e4 gene performed more poorly on assessments of thinking skills and memory. Somewhere around the ages of 8 to 10, the poor outcomes went away.
Chang pointed to a study led by Rebecca Knickmeyer that found infants with the gene variant showed structural anomalies in brain regions known to be attacked by Alzheimer's. Knickmeyer said the study has no current practical implications, such as having kids tested for APOE variants.
However, the findings do add to the ongoing assumption that Alzheimer's might be a developmental disorder. If this were true, the question would become when or in what manner it would be possible to intervene and change a patient's journey toward dementia.
The APOE gene has three iterations: e2, e3, e4. Everyone carries two copies, one inherited from their mother and one from their father. The e3 variant is most prevalent and shows up in over three-quarters of the population who carry a minimum of one copy.
The findings were based on MRI scans of almost 1,200 healthy children and teenagers. Of the group, 62% carried two copies of e3, and approximately one-quarter of the participants carried at least one copy of e4. Under 2% had two e4 variants, but many people with Alzheimer's do not carry the e4 variant and many with e4 do not develop Alzheimer's.
Experts do agree that people should take care of their brains by eating a healthy diet, staying active mentally, and exercising.
Chang and her research team said that by studying APOE in young children, scientists could be assisted in coming up with the earliest pointers for those who could profit from early interventions, writes Rhodi Lee, reporting for Tech Times.
"Our findings validated and extended prior smaller studies that showed altered brain development in APOE e4-carrier children," the researchers wrote in their study, which was published in the journal Neurology on July 13.
Ian Le Guillou, Research Officer at Alzheimer's Society, said that the findings were interesting, but the public needs to be cautious when interpreting the results, especially since of the 1,000 children, only about 30 were in the highest-risk group. Guillou added that the society would like to see the research performed with a larger group of children, with longer-term follow-ups so that more information can be gleaned in respect to the changes in the brain that occur as kids grow and develop.