05:20am Sunday 07 June 2020

Forget about plaque when diagnosing Alzheimer’s Disease

PhD student Amanda Wright and Dr Bryce Vissel from Sydney’s Garvan Institute of Medical Research studied a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease in order to identify early versus late disease mechanisms and markers.

The data, published online today in the journal PLOS ONE, suggest that plaques occur long after memory loss, so may not be a useful early pathological marker for Alzheimer’s disease.

The Investigators found that significant nerve cell loss and a range of brain pathologies, including inflammation, began at the same time as subtle memory problems appeared, early in the disease process. Plaques occurred much later, well after significant memory loss. 

“Ever since Alois Alzheimer first described this disease in 1906, plaque has been regarded as the definitive Alzheimer’s diagnosis,” said project leader Dr Vissel.

“Just last year, the first ever method of plaque detection through positron emission tomography (PET) was introduced into the clinic to assist in the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease – precisely because plaque is regarded as the conclusive marker for Alzheimer’s disease. Our study suggests that this method may not be accurate in earlier disease stages.”

Dr Vissel said that many billions of dollars have been spent around the world in trying to develop markers and drugs to block the development of plaque. Several drug trials based on this idea have failed recently.

 “Our study supports the increasingly common view that treatment should start much earlier in the disease process. It also suggests that brain inflammation and cell loss may be an earlier indicator of disease pathology than plaque and an alternative target for treatment.”

 “In addition, what’s coming out in various studies is that mild cognitive impairment may be another early predictor of Alzheimer’s. This seems to fit perfectly with our findings, which show mild memory loss and behavioural changes at an early stage before plaque appears.”

“I can see that the development of some clever learning and language tests to test for early signs of cognitive impairment will be an important indicator of dementia, when combined with a range of yet to be developed tests.”


  • Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia.
  • Dementia is the term used to describe a large group of illnesses in which there is a progressive loss of memory, intellect, rationality, social skills and physical functioning.
  • Dementia is the single greatest cause of disability in Australians aged 65 years or older and the fourth leading cause of disability burden overall
  • Worldwide, there are more than 36 million people with dementia today and 115 million predicted by 2050
  • There are more than 300,000 Australians living with dementia
  • Without a major medical breakthrough, this is expected to soar to almost 900,000 by 2050


The Garvan Institute of Medical Research was founded in 1963. Initially a research department of St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, it is now one of Australia’s largest medical research institutions with over 600 scientists, students and support staff. Garvan’s main research areas are: Cancer, Diabetes & Obesity, Immunology and Inflammation, Osteoporosis and Bone Biology and Neuroscience. Garvan’s mission is to make significant contributions to medical science that will change the directions of science and medicine and have major impacts on human health. The outcome of Garvan’s discoveries is the development of better methods of diagnosis, treatment, and ultimately, prevention of disease.


Media enquiries should be directed to:
Alison Heather
Science Communications Manager

M: + 61 434 071 326
P: +61 2 9295 8128
E: a.heather “a” garvan.org.au

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