Five-minute neck scan could be part of future dementia screening

Researchers studied 3,191 middle-aged volunteers who were given an ultrasound in 2002 and monitored over the next 15 years. Picture: Contributed
Researchers studied 3,191 middle-aged volunteers who were given an ultrasound in 2002 and monitored over the next 15 years. Picture: Contributed
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A five-minute scan of blood vessels in the neck during mid-life could become part of future dementia screening, researchers have suggested.

If confirmed in larger studies, the scan – which predicts cognitive decline ten years before symptoms appear – could become part of routine screening for people at risk of developing dementia.

Cognitive decline is often one of the first signs of dementia, but not everyone who shows signs of cognitive decline will go on to develop dementia.

The research, which is being presented at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions conference in Chicago, was led by University College London (UCL).

Researchers said that as the heart beats, it generates a physical pulse that travels around the body.

Healthy, elastic vessels near the heart usually diminish the energy carried by this pulse by cushioning each heartbeat, preventing the pulse from reaching delicate blood vessels elsewhere in the body.

Factors like ageing and high blood pressure cause stiffening of these blood vessels, however, and may diminish their protective effect.

As a result, a progressively stronger pulse can travel deep into the fragile vessels which supply the brain.

Over time, this can cause damage to the small vessels of the brain, structural changes in the brain’s blood vessel network and minor bleeds known as mini strokes, which all may contribute to the development of dementia.

The study saw the team analyse a group of 3,191 middle-aged volunteers who were given an ultrasound in 2002, which measured the intensity of the pulse travelling towards their brain.

Over the next 15 years, they monitored the participant’s memory and problem-solving ability.

Participants with the highest intensity pulse (top 25 per cent) at the beginning of the study were around 50 per cent more likely to exhibit accelerated cognitive decline over the next decade compared to the rest of the participants.

This difference was present even after adjustments for possible confounding factors, such as age, body mass index (BMI), blood pressure and diabetes, and whether participants had other heart conditions.

Researchers said cognitive decline is a noticeable and measurable reduction in cognitive abilities.

Cognitive decline is often one of the first signs of dementia, but not everyone who shows signs of cognitive decline will go on to develop dementia.

The team now plans to use MRI scans to check if these individuals also display structural and functional changes within the brain which may explain the changes in cognitive abilities.