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UW researchers look for early Alzheimer's test and treatment

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Dixie Wilson's father and his four siblings died from Alzheimer's. She helped establish the Yount Family genetic study at UW Medicine, where researchers are using brain puzzles to establish a baseline, documenting Dixie's healthy brain, to better detect and potentially treat early signs of Alzheimer's (Photo: KOMO News)

SEATTLE--Alzheimer's disease is considered the medical challenge of our time. While scientists have made great advances fighting cancer, stroke and many chronic diseases, there is still no treatment for Alzheimer's. UW Medicine's Memory and Brain Wellness Center is working to change that.

And local families are helping in the effort.

In many ways, Claude Yount lived the American dream. He moved west with 85 cents in his pocket, started his own business, and married his hometown sweetheart.

Claude's daughter Dixie Wilson is now a keeper of his story. Before he died, the memories documented in family photos disappeared from Claude's mind, casualties of Alzheimer's Disease.

"Things got very bad. When I say they were very difficult and very bad, he did not know who any of us were, including my mom, my sisters and I," Dixie said.

It was a heartbreaking process for family to witness - not just with Claude but with his two sisters and two brothers. All five died of Alzheimer's.

Dixie helped establish the Yount Family genetic study at UW Medicine, where researchers are using brain puzzles to establish a baseline, documenting Dixie's healthy brain. It's part a larger study looking for the earliest signs of Alzheimer's. If Dixie develops the disease, doctors know she could have changes in her brain 10 to 15 years before showing any outward symptoms. Finding those earliest signs could lead to a drug to treat it.

"It's an opportunity for prevention," said UW Medicine's Dr. Thomas Grabowski. "Because if we could slow down the disease by five years out of those 15, the way the math works out, we would cut Alzheimer's dementia in half."

Dr. Grabowski specifically wants to know if an MRI can detect the early brain changes. If so, it could become a simple way to monitor those at risk.

"There are any number of reasons people might be getting an MRI scan anyway," he said. "And the kinds of sequences we're using could be done with an additional 10 minutes or so on a clinical scan."

With her family's past, Dixie knows Alzheimer's could be in her future. But she believes science will win out.

"Most people out there don't realize we're getting very close to being able to have drugs available to us that could literally stop the disease in its tracks," Dixie said.

It didn't come soon enough for Claude Yount or his siblings. But an Alzheimer's cure could be part of their legacy - something they would long be remembered for.

Dixie Wilson is around the 50th person to join the study. Researchers ultimately hope to include 150 people. If you're interested in volunteering contact the Memory and Brain Wellness Center.

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