A team of Bristol scientists has taken a step closer to revealing signs of dementia in brain images many years before any symptoms appear.

Using state of the art MRI scanning techniques, local researchers have made important progress in understanding the changes that take place in the brain during normal ageing and when disease is affecting the brain.

The BRACE-funded project, led by Professor Risto Kauppinen at the University of Bristol, looked at changes in the hippocampus of the brain, an area that is affected by dementia as well as its adjoining white matter, the brain's cable system.

By detecting brain changes much earlier in a person’s life it could be possible to develop new treatments and make general health changes that could slow the progress of the illness.

Currently a diagnosis of dementia is made well into the development of the disease, after much of the damage to the brain has already been done.

Risto (pictured, right) explained that this was a small but significant step in the right direction in terms of better understanding the illness. He said, “We have made real progress here in getting a clearer picture of the processes that could lead to the development of dementia. Instead of using hospital MRI scanners to look at the macro level of the brain we have gone into microscopic detail to better reveal effects of disease taking place in brain structures.

“The question we now need to ask is at what age should we start scanning people, just how much earlier do these changes take place in the brain? If we can get significantly earlier diagnoses it could give people a chance to adjust general health that could affect the development of the illness.

“This sort of early stage research is only possible thanks to funding charities such as BRACE so I want to thank them for their role in this study.”

During the three and a half-year study Prof Kauppinen, in collaboration with dementia neurologist Dr Liz Coulthard and her team, used a 3T MRI machine to scan the brains of 70 senior people, 20 with mild cognitive impairment (sometimes a forerunner of dementia) and 18 patients with Alzheimer’s disease. The analysis of these scans showed that areas of the hippocampus connected to memory were visibly changed by the illness.

Mark Poarch, Chief Executive of BRACE, said the findings from the study were an important step forwards. He said, “We are delighted that this BRACE-backed study has yielded useful findings. If we can better understand the changes that take place in the brain much earlier in a person’s life then we are a step closer to defeating this terrible illness. I want to thank all of our generous supporters because without them important science like this would not be possible.”