Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is progressive, but slow to develop — or at least to reveal itself. In a new study, published online February 14, 2020 in the journal Biological Psychiatry, researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine, with colleagues elsewhere, report that early, subtle differences in cognitive performance, such as fewer words recalled on a memory test, are a sign that harmful proteins are accumulating in the brain, even if levels of those proteins do not yet qualify as dangerous.
Pathologically, AD is primarily characterized by the accumulation of protein plaques called β-amyloid (Aβ), which gradually accumulate in the brain, disrupting cell function and eventually killing affected neurons. A second type of protein, called tau, also accumulates abnormally inside neurons, damaging functions.
In the progression of AD, Aβ levels build in the brain, but the process leading to abnormally high levels is typically long. It is often years or decades before consequential symptoms of severe cognitive impairment appear. A new framework from the National Institute on Aging and Alzheimer’s Association defines the first stage of AD to be individuals with abnormal levels of Aβ who are still cognitively normal.