It’s estimated that more than 15,000 Americans have Huntington’s disease (HD) according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and that more than 200,000 Americans are at-risk of inheriting it.
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For the first time, new research uses imaging to help predict changes in the brain related to HD. The study’s findings could ultimately help delay the disease’s progression in at-risk populations.
Like having Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s at the same time
Of all the brain diseases, HD is one of the most devastating. Many people describe it as having Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease at the same time. It runs in families and typically strikes young people. Most are diagnosed in their 40s.
The disease destroys brain cells and causes dementia that becomes worse over time. Coupled with uncontrollable movements that affect walking, talking and swallowing, it severely impacts quality of life for those affected.
“It’s a very stressful disease,” says Stephen Rao, PhD, a neurologist at Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Brain Health. “There’s the potential of passing it on to your offspring, and so it can be very stressful for the family.”
A person is at risk for HD if he or she inherits the abnormal HD gene from a parent. A child whose parent has the HD mutation has a 50% chance of inheriting the gene. Anyone who inherits the gene will eventually develop HD symptoms, although the exact age isn’t the same for everyone. In some cases, the onset of HD may be earlier than it was in the prior generation.
Pinpointing brain changes to delay progression
Currently, there isn’t a cure or a way to stop HD, but researchers are making progress. A new study looks at 300 different regions of the brain using a special scanner called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
Functional MRI measures tiny changes that take place in an active part of the brain. The technology measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow.
A closer look at each region of the brain allowed the researchers to see gradual changes in brain connections. By identifying and predicting the brain changes, physicians may be able to personalize treatment for patients moving forward.
The study sheds light on how the brain changes during the early stages of the disease. Knowing how the brain changes as the disease develops is key when it comes to creating and testing new treatments to potentially stop or reverse it.
“That’s the important thing here,” says Dr. Rao. “To know how [Huntington’s disease] unfolds at different stages prior to the diagnosis. Then we can use that information to tell whether the interventions are working or not.”
Similar research for Alzheimer’s disease also uses fMRI to predict disease progression. Researchers hope that by successfully tracking brain changes, at-risk populations will have a better chance at treating the brain diseases earlier, leading to a greater quality of life.