Brain scans used to improve dementia diagnosis

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Southampton research has shown that certain patterns on brain scans could be used to help diagnose dementia earlier and support caregivers.

The term ‘dementia’ describes a group of conditions that see continuous loss of brain function, affecting memory, mood and understanding. The most common cause is Alzheimer’s disease, but there are many others.

Over 850,000 people in the UK have dementia, and it is estimated this will rise to over a million by 2025. Rates of diagnosis are improving but many people with dementia are thought to still be undiagnosed.

Although there are currently no cures for the various forms of dementia, early diagnosis is critical to giving patients and their families the best possible quality of life for as long as possible. By getting the right treatments, support and care in place the condition and its impacts can be better managed.

The basics

Single-Photon Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT) brain scans are a routine part of dementia diagnosis, helping exclude other causes of failing brain function and better diagnose the dementia type.

These scans track blood flow through the brain to create a 3D image of brain activity, using  detectors that  rotate around the patient’s head to image a radioactive ‘tracer’ injected into the bloodstream.

The pattern of brain activity helps indicate both the likelihood of dementia and also the type. For example, those with Alzheimer’s disease have areas of reduced activity towards the back of the brain, whereas someone with frontotemporal dementia will have reduced activity at the front.  

Taking scans further

Now Angus Prosser and his team have combined diagnostic brain scans with questionnaires completed by patients’ caregivers and family to predict the speed of dementia progression and the likely impact on care needs.

The study team ask the ‘companions’ of patients who have consented to be part of the research, such as a family member or friend, to complete a standard clinical questionnaire used to assess dementia severity. This is done on the day of the scan and then every six months for a few years afterwards.

Combining scan and questionnaire results means they can identify links between the scan results and the speed of disease progression, as well as the impact on the level and type of care needs.

Good progress

The team have recruited over 500 participants and initial results have already shown how specific activity patterns on brain scans can aid detection of dementia in people who have symptoms of suspected dementia. The team have also been able to predict the likely level of impact on caregivers, based on scans taken at the time of diagnosis.

These data, combined with longer-term results have the potential to aid early diagnosis, more timely provision of the right care for individuals, and better support for their caregivers.

Posted on Friday 28 June 2019