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Researchers Accurately Predict Cognitive Decline

March 18, 2013

Early Confirmation of Disease Allows for Earlier Intervention and Better Outcomes

Media Contacts

Lisa Newbern, 404-727-7709,

ATLANTA – Researchers have shown they can predict impending cognitive decline using a sensitive behavioral task up to three years in advance of clinical evidence. Until now, it has not been possible to reliably differentiate individuals at risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and Alzheimer’s disease (AD) from those who are not at risk. The results of this study are in the current (March 2013) issue of the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease & Other Dementias.

Stuart Zola, PhD, director of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, and his Emory-based research team administered the Visual Paired Comparison (VPC) task using noninvasive, infrared eyetracking to assess memory function, an important function of the medial temporal lobe region of the brain. The team’s findings demonstrate the VPC task performance scores are an early predictor of which individuals diagnosed with amnestic MCI (aMCI) will progress to AD during the subsequent three years and which individuals are not at risk. In addition, the findings also predict which control subjects will develop aMCI and which will not.

“Previous studies have focused on detecting the presence of disease,” said Zola. “Our study focused on predicting whether and when the disease will occur. The earlier we can intervene, the more likely we can provide more effective treatment. In addition, a three-year advance notice could give families more time to prepare for the future,” Zola continued.

The researchers assessed 92 participants who were either diagnosed with aMCI or were elderly control subjects (CON). Participants viewed images on a computer screen while the researchers recorded the participants’ eye movements. Researchers compared the scores of the participants on the VPC task with information from their clinical visits and diagnoses. The scores accurately reflected those participants who were most at risk for cognitive decline and those who were not at risk at all. The researchers believe the VPC task also may be useful in predicting onset and progression of memory dysfunction in other medical conditions in which disruption of the medial temporal lobe memory system could occur, for example, depression, autism spectrum disorder and HIV/AIDS.  

“The task used for this study was developed in nonhuman primates in our laboratory and then modified for our studies with patients,” Zola said. Our findings not only have the ability to impact countless lives, but this study makes clear the translational connection between research in nonhuman primates and applications to the clinical setting and patient care,” he continued.  

The research team, which now includes Zola together with Cecelia Manzanares, Eugene Agichtein, PhD, and Elizabeth Buffalo, PhD, is continuing to explore other approaches for assessing cognition and is developing a Web-based system for future use.

For eight decades, the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, has been dedicated to conducting essential basic science and translational research to advance scientific understanding and to improve the health and well-being of humans and nonhuman primates. Today, the center, as one of only eight National Institutes of Health–funded national primate research centers, provides leadership, training and resources to foster scientific creativity, collaboration and discoveries. Yerkes-based research is grounded in scientific integrity, expert knowledge, respect for colleagues, an open exchange of ideas and compassionate quality animal care.  

Within the fields of microbiology and immunology, neurologic diseases, neuropharmacology, behavioral, cognitive and developmental neuroscience, and psychiatric disorders, the center’s research programs are seeking ways to: develop vaccines for infectious and noninfectious diseases; treat drug addiction; interpret brain activity through imaging; increase understanding of progressive illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases; unlock the secrets of memory; determine how the interaction between genetics and society shape who we are; and advance knowledge about the evolutionary links between biology and behavior. 

Note: Stuart Zola, Cecelia Manzanares, Eugene Agichtein, Elizabeth Buffalo and Emory University have financial interests in the VPC technology, which has been licensed from Emory. They also have equity interests in Neurotrack Technologies, a company that is developing and hopes to commercialize the technology.  The terms of this arrangement have been reviewed and approved by Emory University in accordance with its conflict of interest policies.

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The Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center of Emory University is an academic health science and service center focused on missions of teaching, research, health care and public service. Its components include the Emory University School of Medicine, Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, and Rollins School of Public Health; Yerkes National Primate Research Center; Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University; and Emory Healthcare, the largest, most comprehensive health system in Georgia. Emory Healthcare includes: The Emory Clinic, Emory-Children's Center, Emory University Hospital, Emory University Hospital Midtown, Wesley Woods Center, and Emory University Orthopaedics & Spine Hospital. The Woodruff Health Sciences Center has a $2.5 billion budget, 17,600 employees, 2,500 full-time and 1,500 affiliated faculty, 4,700 students and trainees, and a $5.7 billion economic impact on metro Atlanta.

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