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Early signs of Alzheimer's focus of UVic study

University of Victoria professor Colette Smart holds a brain model in her office at the university. She is leading a study called
University of Victoria professor Colette Smart holds a brain model in her office at the university. She is leading a study called 'ProjectSMART' which is trying to identify early warning signs of Alzheimer's disease, and teach older adults how to exercise their brains.
— image credit: Sharon Tiffin/News staff

A University of Victoria study aimed at identifying early warning signs of Alzheimer's disease has drawn strong interest from willing volunteers who want to help fight the deadly form of dementia.

Researchers are trying to determine what constitutes a "normal" level of decline in memory and thinking abilities, and whether that decline can be prevented in people at risk of the disease.

Since putting out a call for participants late last month, the university has received at least 120 applications for 50 to 60 available spots in the study.

Dubbed "ProjectSMART," the study will see participants between the ages of 65 and 80 randomly split into two groups and taking part in a series of classes.

One group will focus on psycho-education – information on how the brain changes with age, what's normal and how to handle the frustrations that go along with those changes. The other group will be given mindfulness training, which teaches subjects how to stay in the moment through things like meditation and yoga.

"There's a fairly rapidly growing amount of research that shows that people who practice meditation – this type of meditation, at least, in a very serious way – show very positive brain changes in terms of structure and function," said Colette Smart, the assistant professor in UVic's Department of Psychology who is leading the study.

She referred to a 2005 group study that showed elderly people who had meditated for a long time had less brain shrinkage than those the same age who were not meditating.

According to the Alzheimer's Society of B.C., more than 70,000 British Columbians are currently living with Alzheimer's or a related dementia. With an aging population, that number could more than double within the next 25 years.

Those numbers mean that the importance of early detection – before obvious symptoms appear on standard tests – continues to grow.

"We're not even close to any kind of cure or anything like that," said Smart. "So the earlier we can identify people who might be at risk and implement some kind of preventative measures, (that) is going to be the most effective thing right now."

Smart hopes the study will eventually help researchers develop tests and measurements that are more sensitive to early risk factors, allowing clinical practitioners to better identify them when older adults begin to observe changes in their thinking abilities.

"Having interventions like these, if people can do them early and intensively, then it may be a protective factor for later cognitive decline, regardless of whether they're at risk for Alzheimer's or not," Smart said.

The study will begin in April once the number of applicants has been whittled down. Once the eight weeks of classes are complete, participants will be monitored for three months. Smart wants to see the research develop into a larger-scale pilot study that would follow subjects over a three- to five-year period.

reporter@vicnews.com

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