Alzheimers

Reporter: Mark Gibson

Kirby and Jake Wicksey aren't the sort of people you'd normally associate with Alzheimer's disease, but they're taking part in the world's most important Alzheimer's study.

A touchy subject because Jake and Kirby's father, Aunt, Uncle and grandmother all died from Alzheimer's disease in their 30s and 40s. Their Dad was diagnosed at just 37.

Everyone knows that Alzheimer's strikes the elderly. It's an epidemic affecting one in two people over the age of 85. The unique thing with this study is it goes back to where the disease begins; working with the children of those who developed Alzheimer's when they were young. Researchers hope they can spot the early changes in the brain that indicate the disease will one day take hold, so they can start treatment before any damage is done.

"These changes that will be happening, these biological changes in the brain and in the blood will be happening at least 15 years earlier. There'll be no symptoms so brain cells are still relatively preserved, so by identifying what changes are happening we know when to enter and thus prevent any real damage to the brain" says Professor Ralph Martins.

Alzheimer's guru, Professor Ralph Martins from Edith Cowan University, has identified the gene that causes Alzheimer's in young people.

"A mutation in this gene, if it's passed on to a child in the next generation, they will definitely get Alzheimer's disease."

Jake and Kirby are in their 20s and perfectly healthy, but their family history alone means they have at least a 50% chance of developing the devastating disease.

The study involves a simple blood test, a memory test and an all-important brain scan.

There are 400 families around the world, all doing the same tests at regular intervals for at least the next six years.

Professor Martins says just like too much cholesterol gives you heart disease, too much amyloid gives you brain disease. In Alzheimer's patients, the brain literally shrinks.

Researchers will now follow their young subjects' progress, hoping this early intervention leads to a diagnostic test for Alzheimer's and eventually a cure.

"Hopefully one day there'll be either a vaccine or at least a continuous medication to help at least relieve the symptoms and hopefully a cure".

"What we don't have is a means to diagnose it earlier and I'm convinced by this study we will have that early diagnosis".

If people want to take part they should contact the McCusker Foundation for Alzheimer's Disease Research.

Ask for Kathy Lucas on 9347 4200 or visit www.alzheimers.com.au