Alzheimer’s disease researchers at the University of Wisconsin identified the first signs of brain function decline, bringing them closer to winning the battle against the disease.

Dr. Sterling Johnson, UW professor of geriatrics and a leading member of the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center in the School of Medicine and Public Health, is conducting research on the subject.

“After years of frustrating failure to stop late-stage Alzheimer’s, it’s essential to find and treat the mild stages,” Johnson said in a statement Monday. “We need to identify Alzheimer’s as early as possible, before the really destructive changes take place. Typically, by the time we diagnose Alzheimer’s disease, patients have already lost much of their brain capacity, and it’s difficult or impossible for them to recover.”

In an email to The Badger Herald, Sterling said researchers have been working on this specific research for four years, and it is a part of his larger program on early Alzheimer’s detection before system onset. He began research in the field in 1997 and brought it with him to UW in 2002.

Sterling said the major purpose of the research is to identify biological markers of the disease allowing them to track its progression and predict future symptoms. Because of the brain’s complexity, however, making predictions is difficult without extensive longitudinal study, Sterling said.

He said the study the team just published in Cerebral Cortex reported healthy adults at a higher risk factor for Alzheimer’s have lower blood flow to areas in their brains important for memory.

This finding is key in identifying Alzheimer’s in a very early phase, allowing more time for doctors to diagnose and intervene before the disease takes its toll on the brain.

Sterling said the disease is becoming more prevalent because people are living longer, but the population at large is understanding its progression and effects better.

He said the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute places a lot of importance on educating physicians and the public about the disease. The Institute has 30 clinics around the state, each with state-of-the-art diagnosis equipment.