The development of brain plaques are thought to correlate with symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, such as memory loss. Previous research has indicated that limiting these buildups could be the key to tackling the disease, but scientists from Northwestern University are digging a little deeper. The team has devised a non-invasive MRI technique capable of tracking the specific toxins that accumulate to form plaques, potentially enabling doctors to pick up early signs of the disease before it starts to take hold.

Known as amyloid beta oligomers, the newly-identifiable brain toxins attack the synapses of neurons and cause memory loss, all the while continuing to build up and form plaques. That they can be picked up early on in this process is promising, as these amyloid beta oligomers, thought to be the true, early culprits of the disease, can appear more than a decade before the plaques are detected.

The MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) tool produced by the Northwestern University scientists pairs a magnetic nanostructure (MNS) with an antibody that is drawn to the amyloid beta oligomers. In applying the method to mouse models with Alzheimer’s, they observed that the imaging technique displays the congregations of toxins as darkened areas on the scans. Conversely, the control group without Alzheimer’s displayed no dark areas.

In addition to its potential in offering early diagnosis of the disease, the researchers say the method could help them monitor how well drugs are working, and might even prove an effective form of treatment. As the MNSs seek out the amyloid beta, they bind to the toxins and serve to "handcuff" them, inhibiting their ability to inflict further harm.

"Using MRI, we can see the toxins attached to neurons in the brain," says neuroscientist William Klein, who led the study. “We expect to use this tool to detect this disease early and to help identify drugs that can effectively eliminate the toxin and improve health."

The team’s research was published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.