Screening for Alzheimer's disease and
By Samuel D. Brinkman, Ph.D., creator of
It is now nearly 100 years since the German physician Alois Alzheimer described the microscopic brain changes in persons afflicted
with the degenerative disease that would eventually bear his name. Much has
happened in Alzheimer’s disease research since that time. We have come to
understand that Alzheimer’s disease is amazingly common throughout the world.
In the United States alone, it is estimated there are about 4.5 million
cases, and it is expected that there will be more than 13 million cases by the year
2050. It is so common that nearly everyone in this country knows someone who is
touched by the disease.
Research has led us to an understanding of certain
neurotransmitters (chemicals that act as messengers between individual brain
cells or groups of brain cells) and how they are selectively involved in the
disease process. Through this understanding, medications have been developed
which can slow the rate of progression (how rapidly the symptoms become
worse). These medications are now routinely available. Research on
medications to prevent the disease has been promising. Advances in our
understanding of the mechanism of the disease (those things that happen to brain
cells to make them degenerate and die) has led to a number of medications in
various stages of development, with the hope and promise that there will soon be
a medication to actually stop the disease process and possibly even to
restore some of the lost functions (memory, language, etc.).
Yet there remains a frustrating circumstance. The majority
of individuals who have Alzheimer’s disease are never really given a diagnosis
of Alzheimer’s disease. Those persons who are evaluated and found to have
Alzheimer’s disease are not identified until they have progressed into moderate
stages of impairment (or greater). As a result,
we are too often losing months
and years of valuable treatment time and allowing the quality of life to
deteriorate more than it has to.
The reasons for this situation are clear.
First, the earliest symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease (primarily problems with
memory and other complex skills in most cases) are difficult to measure
objectively. Second, the accurate measurement of these early symptoms is
expensive, because someone trained at the Master’s Degree level or higher is
usually required to administer and score the tests. Third, health care
providers (especially gatekeeper physicians) have precious little time available
to screen for a disease for which there is no definitive treatment.
Fourth, there continues to be great misunderstanding about when memory problems
are just a part of normal aging and when they are a signal that something is
truly going wrong in the brain.
Why is early screening and detection
important? If screening for the earliest symptoms of Alzheimer’s
disease could be accomplished accurately and economically, as with the
GrayMatters Assessment System®, several wonderful
things could be achieved:
Persons who have symptoms suggestive of Alzheimer’s
disease, but who actually have a treatable disorder causing these symptoms,
would be identified, treated, and returned to fully functioning lives with
less damage to their lives and lifestyles.
Second, persons who have Alzheimer’s disease could begin
medications when the symptoms are mild enough that they can continue to work,
drive, manage their affairs, and remain socially engaged for a longer period
of time. If we currently had available the perfect medication to absolutely
stop the progression of deficits, we would not have the ability to start most
people on this medication because of the lack of screening capabilities.
Third, early recognition of Alzheimer’s disease would
allow the afflicted individuals time to discuss with family and friends their
desires, preferences, and concerns (on issues such as guardianship,
transportation, advanced directives, and living arrangements) so that these
concerns can be sorted out before they are too confused to participate in
Our research over the past four to five years has suggested that
there is a way to screen accurately and economically for the earliest symptoms
of Alzheimer’s disease. To avoid the high cost of screening, computer
technology is utilized. Procedures have been developed which enable people who
have never seen a computer to perform computerized tasks correctly. Using voice
instructions (the computer “talks to” the person who is screened) and
touch-screen technology (the person being screened only has to touch parts of
the computer screen with the finger in order to complete memory tasks), we have
demonstrated that elderly individuals with no computer experience can be
screened accurately without having to have highly trained staff assistants to
take them through the screening process. We call this system
GrayMatters®, a term which reflects our commitment to making the process of
aging as wonderful an experience as possible.
This system is now available to the healthcare
community and can be obtained by contacting us at
or calling us at 1-866-GrayMatters
(1-866-472-9628) or 325-677-3172. We are most
grateful for the help and guidance of many wonderful professionals who are
involved in research and/or care of persons with Alzheimer’s disease and related