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2019 Alzheimer's Association Research Fellowship (AARF)

AD Biomarker and Risk Characterization in Cognitively Unimpaired Middle-Age

Can brain scans improve early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and predict future symptoms of Alzheimer’s?


Tobey Betthauser, Ph.D.
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Madison, WI - United States


Alzheimer’s is characterized in part by the accumulation of protein fragment beta-amyloid and an abnormal form of the tau protein. These proteins tend to form harmful clumps called amyloid plaques and tau tangles respectively. Though studies indicate that plaques and tangles may hinder nerve cell function in the brain and could cause cell death, the mechanisms underlying these brain changes is as yet unclear. It becomes critical then to understand the underlying biology relating to Alzheimer’s. Recent advances allow these plaques and tangles to be identified using brain scans in living people.
Dr. Tobey Betthauser proposes to determine if brain scans can improve early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s as well as predict future Alzheimer’s symptoms that may be developed by individuals.  

Research Plan

Dr. Tobey Betthauser and colleagues have been testing if a brain scan technique called (Positron Emission Tomography or PET) can more accurately visualize how tau and beta-amyloid levels change in the brain. The researchers plan to use this technology to clarify how brain levels of tau and beta-amyloid increase in older individuals at risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Dr. Betthauser’s effort will involve about 350 middle-aged and late middle-aged participants from a study of brain health called the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention (WRAP), many of whom have parents who have had Alzheimer’s. The researchers will take two types of brain scans of their participants (using PET and another type of scan called magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)) and administer tests to determine cognitive function. These tests and scans will be performed twice, with two years between the procedures. Dr. Betthauser and colleagues will analyze the results of these tests to determine how tau and amyloid levels change over time, and how such changes impact cognitive function such as memory, thinking etc. These findings will be used to determine which individuals may be at greater risk for developing dementia.  


If successful, Dr. Betthauser’s study could provide new information on how subtle changes in brain chemistry and function work together in Alzheimer’s disease. The study results could also lead to ways of improved diagnosis for individuals at earlier time.

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