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Health Check: Alzheimer's end-of-life study

Alzheimer's disease researchers are enrolling in a study patients who are at the end of life.

There's exciting new Alzheimer's disease research that could lead to a new diagnostic brain scan.

Researchers are enrolling patients who are at the end of life. Fifty-seven-year-old Maureen DiGregorio is one of them.

"She's a very warm loving woman," said her brother, Joseph Murphy.

"For her to be in the situation she's in, she's lost all independence, she's lost all care of herself," said Murphy.

Her decline began 6 years ago.

"She was irritable and not herself," said her daughter, Ashley Medina. "At one point she was having trouble writing her name."

So Medina and Murphy took DiGregorio in for testing. She had Alzheimer's disease.

"It progressed very quickly," said Medina.

And now, with very little time left, she is one of four people enrolled in a study that won't help her but promises to help millions of others.

"What I'm so moved about is the volunteerism," said Dr. Stephen Salloway, the director of Butler Hospital's Memory and Aging Program.

As part of the study, DiGregorio had a brain scan a week ago and after she's gone, she will undergo an autopsy. Earlier research showed a link between a buildup of the protein amyloid and Alzheimer's disease. Now, they're looking to confirm the protein tau is also prominent.

"We think that amyloid protein is building up first but not long after that, tau protein is also building up and it's when the tau protein builds up and starts to spread in the brain is when the memory loss starts to occur," said Salloway.

And while they can see the tau protein on PET scans now, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires it be confirmed through autopsy. So volunteers have a scan before death and an autopsy afterward.

"It's for people who are terminally ill who have less than six months to live. They can have dementia or not. They could have cancer causing their terminal illness with totally normal memory," Salloway said.

That way they can prove the tau protein is in the Alzheimer's brain and not the normal brain, and that promises to help doctors better treat folks with this memory robbing disease.

"I know that she, herself would want to help others," said Medina of her mother's involvement.

The name of this study is the Tau Pet Autopsy Validation Trial. For more information, call Butler Hospital's Memory and Aging Program at 401-455-6403.

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