Wake Forest Baptist Health researchers have received a five-year, $2.53 million federal grant geared toward determining whether a novel brain-imaging technique can identify Alzheimer’s disease in its early stages.

The grant comes from the National Institutes of Health.

Using an animal model, the researchers will employ a tracer for positron emission tomography (PET scanning) to image microtubules — microscopic tubes that help define the structure and movement of cells — in the brain.

Researchers said that when microtubules “start disintegrating or detangling, they can’t do their job anymore. The neurons begin to degenerate and cognition declines.”

While microtubule impairments are implicated in several stages of the progression of Alzheimer’s, researchers said the related neurodegeneration occurs significantly before the appearance of any symptoms of the disease.

Researchers will inject the microtubule PET tracer in healthy and Alzheimer’s mice and scan their brains at two-month intervals. The imaging tracer are hypothesized to bind only to those microtubules that are intact. The tracer’s lack of binding, conversely, should indicate that the microtubules have deteriorated and the onset of disease has begun.

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