Individualized brain "fingerprints" can help identify early signs of Alzheimer's disease (AD) in older adults, scientists say.

A team of researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina used a new brain imaging technique to study the subtle changes occurring in the brain's functioning in pre-symptomatic Alzheimer's patients. The study was published in the journal Brain Connectivity.

One of the earliest signs of Alzheimer's includes a build-up of amyloid-beta proteins in the brain. Using the novel brain mapping technology, the researchers tried to establish a link between subtle changes in brain function and declining cognitive performance. They were assessed using behavior-based tests, the university said in a press release.

"Prior studies have not found an association between brain function and behavior in preclinical AD," said lead researcher Andreana Benitez. "Using these individualized maps of brain function, we found a potential brain-based reason for very subtle cognitive changes in this early phase of the disease."

Researchers believe the new technology is a breakthrough in Alzheimer's research as the standard methods couldn't detect the unique brain changes in different individuals.

Stephanie Fountain-Zaragoza, who was part of the study, said the method pinpoints where the different functional regions are in each individual's brain.

Linking brain function to behavior

Scientists carried out a cohort study with 149 people in the age group 45 to 85 – none of them had signs of declining cognitive performance. The participants underwent a positron emission tomography (PET) scan and then they were split into two different groups based on whether or not they had amyloid-protein build-ups in their brains.

To generate the "brain fingerprints," MRI scans were also conducted. Using research-based techniques, the participants were assessed for the strength of their cognitive functioning. The researchers found that those with worse information processing abilities showed changes in the brain fingerprint, which suggested they had amyloid-beta buildup or preclinical Alzheimer's.

"A healthy brain typically has a balance of connectivity within and between its networks," said Fountain-Zaragoza. "We found that in preclinical AD—when amyloid build-up is present in the brain—this balance can be disrupted, potentially leading to information no longer being processed as efficiently."

The study underscored that even minuscule protein build-up can affect cognitive abilities, much before the symptoms become noticeable. The changes in connectivity in and around brain networks may be tied to the loss of information-processing abilities, researchers noted.

They hope the findings will broaden the scope for better research on the dynamics of AD. In the future, researchers are looking to explore the trajectory of brain changes during the progress of AD and target the gaps in the brain's networking to come up with potential treatments.

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