BrightFocus Funds Research Aimed at Early Detection of Alzheimer’s

Martha Snyder Taggart, BrightFocus Editor, Science Communications
  • Science News
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BrightFocus’ Alzheimer’s Disease Research (ADR) program is supporting efforts to develop new imaging techniques to assist with an earlier diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

“By the time you see symptoms there are already significant damages in the brain and it might be too late to initiate effective treatments,” says Xiong Jiang, PhD, a 2016-19 ADR grantee, who is an assistant professor of neuroscience at Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) and director of its Cognitive Neuroimaging Laboratory.

He and colleagues envision a time when individuals are routinely screened for Alzheimer’s with an inexpensive, noninvasive test, and then treated before the brain is irreparably damaged.

To create their new test, they’re starting with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), an existing technique that uses blood oxygen levels to assess brain activity and, indirectly, cognitive performance. However, fMRI has been known to provide conflicting results, and it is focused almost exclusively on gray matter, including changes to nerve cell bodies. This makes it difficult to detect disruptions in neural connectivity among entire regions of the brain, as well as white matter changes, using MRI.

Hoping to improve on this, Jiang and his team are combining fMRI with other types of imaging, including resting state fMRI connectivity and diffusion tensor imaging, to increase sensitivity and accuracy in assessing AD progression. After studying results from each type of test, they plan to develop and evaluate multimodal MRI biomarkers of AD using powerful machine-learning algorithms.

Already the team is excited about the preliminary results, and they are looking for volunteers to help test this new diagnostic approach. “We strongly encourage individuals to participate, especially those with a family history or a genetic risk (i.e., Apoe4),” Dr. Jiang said. Up to 90 healthy volunteers are needed.

[To learn more about participating in this study, see contact information at end.]

While not a controlled clinical trial, the results will nonetheless help the researchers develop and improve their early Alzheimer’s detection techniques.

“We have obtained some interesting and exciting results that suggest MRI (especially fMRI) has the potential to detect early and subtle changes in neuronal function before the onset of clinical symptoms,” Dr. Jiang said. “We are hoping the project funded by BrightFocus will help us to verify, validate, and improve the technique we have right now, with an ultimate goal of real world applications (i.e., clinical practice and drug development).

Their work coincides with the middle stages of large clinical trials sponsored by pharmaceutical companies, aimed at evaluating new drugs for possible FDA approval. These so-called disease-modifying drugs that are being tested represent the first treatments with the potential to delay or stop Alzheimer’s destructive changes in the brain.

When and if these new drugs are approved, early diagnosis, such as what Dr. Jiang and team are working on, can lead to earlier treatment. And that could make an all-important difference for many individuals hoping to live out their lives free of Alzheimer’s.

In his grant profile on the BrightFocus website, Dr. Jiang spoke of how Alzheimer’s costs and burdens threaten to overwhelm families like his own, which has been touched by the disease. That’s what drives his work.

“My passion for the next 5-10 years is to develop magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)-based biomarkers … which might have the potential to assist in clinical diagnosis, as well as to guide drug development and targeted interventional therapies,” he said.

With BrightFocus’ help, he is on the way to achieving that goal.

To learn more about participating in this Georgetown study, send an email to or call (202) 687-6048.

To find another research project in your area seeking volunteers, please visit our clinical trials finder.

For more information about clinical research in general, you can request a copy of the free BrightFocus publication, “Clinical Trials: Your Questions Answered,” by calling 1-800-437-2423 or visiting This guide includes information on the important role of volunteers in science, as well as key questions to ask your doctor.