When Ben Franklin wrote, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” he wasn’t referring to brain diseases. But researchers at the Glenn Biggs Institute for Alzheimer’s and Neurodegenerative Diseases at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio are researching early indicators of diseases to either prevent or delay the onset of severe symptoms.
Mitzi Gonzales, PhD, ABPP-CN, a neuropsychologist with the institute, said changes in how a person walks could help detect and distinguish different types of dementia. She said it’s most evident when a patient is given a problem to solve and walk simultaneously.
“Typically, some people see trade-off costs in the fact that their gait gets a little slower when they are doing a task such as subtracting by threes,” she said. “But in individuals with a neurodegenerative disorder, we see more pronounced changes, and that’s what we are interested in looking into further.”
She said a person with Lewy body dementia might walk differently than a patient with Alzheimer’s, but she is quick to say that there are other reasons why a person’s walk may change.
“With older adults, when you are looking at gait, there are a lot of complicating factors you have to keep in mind,” she said. “There are orthopedic injuries or other things that might change the way they walk. So, for that reason, it takes some sophisticated analysis to identify a true signature of what’s different.”
Gonzales said researchers use a gait map, a runway with sensors, to test a patient’s walk. Still, more sophisticated data analysis will be needed to identify a disease.
She said researchers are also looking into touch, smell and hearing to help identify the early onset of a neurodegenerative disease before symptoms begin. For example, she said, a person with Parkinson’s disease may lose their sense of smell even years before the motor symptoms present. But other factors, like allergies, could lead to a change in smell sensitivity. Hearing loss could lead to less interaction with friends or within a social network. As the pandemic made clear, she added, social interaction is essential to physical and mental healths.
Gonzales said while early detection is valuable to treat a disease and hopefully slow its progression, outside factors may help prevent a disease from manifesting.
“There has been data to suggest that 40% of our risk for dementia might be related to modifiable factors,” she said.
She said researchers need a lot of data to help determine if any changes in walking, smell, touch and hearing indicate a disease. She said volunteers could participate in a nationwide study led by the University of California San Francisco called the Brain Health Registry. The study is conducted online to include participants who cannot travel to a research facility.
“The goal is to get large-scale representative data of potential risk factors or things we might be able to study in more detail,” she said. “We’ve worked closely to set up our South Texas version of the registry, which we call STOP AD BHR.”
The Biggs Institute website details active clinical trials and the STOP AD BHR study.