Brain Scans Show Alzheimer's Emerging
PET scans show the presence of tau (top row) and beta-amyloid. Both have spread through the brain in the patient on the far right.
Forget the frightening androids of dystopian sci-fi, the future of robots is cute polar bears that can lift elderly people into and out of bed. The “Robear” has a cub-like face with big doey eyes, but packs enough power to transfer frail patients from a wheelchair to a bed or a bath, Japan’s Riken institute said Tuesday. “The polar cub-like look is aimed at radiating an atmosphere of strength, geniality and cleanliness at the same time,” research leader Toshiharu Mukai told AFP.
“We voted for this design among options presented by our designer. We hope to commercialize the robot in the not-too distant future,” he added. A historically low birth rate and ever-increasing life expectancy means Japan’s population of elderly people is growing, while the pool of youngsters to look after them is shrinking. A reluctance to accept large-scale immigration means an increasing reliance on robots, especially to perform physically difficult work.
This frequently combines with the country’s love of all things cute, to produce machines with disarming faces and child-like voices. “As Japan is aging with fewer children, the problem of a shortage in caregivers for the elderly is getting serious,” Riken said in a statement. “Expectations are high that robotics will help resolve this problem,” it said.
For the first time since Alzheimer’s disease reared its ugly head, scientists have found a potential tool for early diagnosis.
Positron emission tomography, or PET, scanners can be used to track the progressive stages of the disease, even in adults who show no symptoms, report scientists at the University of California, Berkeley.
In a study — the results of which are published this week in the journal “Neuron” — William Jagust and his team conducted PET scans on 53 adults. Of the group, five people were young adults aged 20 to 26, 33 were healthy retired adults aged 64 to 90 and 15 were aged 53 to 77 and already showed signs of Alzheimer’s disease.
Scientists studied the brains scans, looking for the accumulation of two proteins, tau and beta-amyloid, that have been linked to Alzheimer’s in the past.
The stages of protein buildup has been studied before in the brains of people who have already died, and given a scale from 1 to 6, thanks to German researchers Heiko and Eva Braak.
But until the study from Jagust and his team, no one had been able to show the Braak staging in people who were still alive. Now with PET scans, they can.
“This opens the door to the use of PET scans as a diagnostic and staging tool,” Jagust said in a press release.
The scientists were also able to see a relationship emerge between the two proteins implicated.
Tau, which appears to accumulate in the medial temporal lobe, where the hippocampus and memory center of the brain are located, doesn’t begin to cause a major problem until it spreads outside that area. At that point, Alzheimer’s begins. And it seems that the amyloid protein plays a role in the spread of tau.
“All I can say is that when amyloid starts to show up, we start to see tau in other parts of the brain, and that is when real problems begin,” Jagust said. ”We think that may be the beginning of symptomatic Alzheimer’s disease.”
More work needs to be done before such a tool can be used in a clinical setting, but Jaust and his team are optimistic that they’ve pinpointed a technology that could have a positive affect on our aging population.