New brain scanning method could improve detection of dementia

US researchers have identified a brain scanning method that could help distinguish between different forms of dementia.

Posted on 20th December 2012

Researchers in the US have identified a new brain scanning method that could be used to help accurately detect different forms of dementia. The study is published on Wednesday 26 December in the journal Neurology online.

Doctors at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, recruited 185 people with Alzheimer’s disease or frontotemporal dementia. The participants were given high-resolution MRI scans, and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) was taken to measure the levels of two proteins: amyloid, a hallmark feature of Alzheimer’s, and tau, which is linked to both Alzheimer’s and frontotemporal dementia.

Researchers already use both of these methods to look for signs of Alzheimer’s and frontotemporal dementia, often in combination with each other and other tests. However, some study participants can be reluctant to undergo a lumbar puncture, which is used to take CSF, so the research team set out to investigate whether other, less invasive methods could be used to detect disease with the same level of accuracy.

The team used sophisticated methods to analyse the MRI scans, and found they were able to use the scans to predict the ratio of amyloid and tau in a person’s CSF with 75% accuracy. They suggest that this method could be used in future research studies to help improve detection of Alzheimer’s and frontotemporal dementia, and to reduce the number of lumbar punctures needed for these studies.

Dr Simon Ridley, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:
“This small study suggests a potential new method for researchers to distinguish between two different types of dementia, and a next step will be to investigate its accuracy in much larger studies involving people without dementia. While this method is not currently intended for use in the doctor’s surgery, it may prove to be a useful tool for scientists developing new treatments. The ability to accurately detect a disease is vital for recruiting the right people to clinical trials and for measuring how well a drug may be working. Ultimately, different causes of dementia will need different treatment approaches, so the ability to accurately distinguish these diseases from one another will be crucial.

“With 820,000 people in the UK affected by dementia, we urgently need treatments that can make a difference to people’s lives. Improved methods of diagnosis will be crucial for developing new drugs, but for either of these to become a reality we must invest in research.”

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