PET scans help determine presence of Alzheimer's disease

Aug. 17, 2004 - A test being developed by WUSM researchers could more definitively tell doctors whether or not a patient has Alzheimer's disease. The process involves the use of PET scan technology. Health reporter Kay Quinn describes the test in the following St. Louis Post-Dispatch article.

Alzheimer's test is being developed at WU

(Republished with permission from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This article originally ran in the Health & Fitness section on Monday, July 12, 2004)

By Kay Quinn

It's a heartbreaking conundrum. Medical science is struggling to find a way to detect Alzheimer's disease before it slowly erases a lifetime of memories in its victims.

Yet, doctors have no definitive test that can tell patients and families whether early signs of memory loss are Alzheimer's or some other disease.

Now, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine believe they may be closer to developing just such a test.

In fact, local scientists have already made an important breakthrough they believe will help doctors diagnose, and eventually cure, Alzheimer's. They've done it by using PET scan technology.

PET stands for positron emission tomography. It's a way of looking at the function and biochemistry of the body and the brain.

Specifically, doctors with Washington University's Memory and Aging Project are focusing on a protein known as amyloid.

Everyone has traces of amyloid in the brain, but the protein forms deposits in the brains of Alzheimer's patients.

When a compound known as a tracer is injected into a patient intravenously, it adheres to the amyloid deposits in the brains of those with the disease, but washes away in disease-free patients.

PET scans allow doctors to view the deposits and determine who has them.

The question now is whether all patients who show traces of amyloid deposits eventually develop the disease.

Over the next few years, researchers will study several hundred patients, with and without Alzheimer's, to find the answer.

Two groups they hope to target: those 75 and older and the adult children of Alzheimer's patients.

But the researchers already face some serious ethical questions. Right now, if healthy study volunteers show signs of amyloid deposits in their brains, doctors won't inform them of the finding.

The reason? Doctors still can't be sure it's a definite indicator that the volunteers will develop the disease, and perhaps more important, there is no treatment.

Along with studying PET scans of the brain, researchers are also looking at other factors, such as genetics, personality changes, cognitive performance over time and changes in the protein levels of the blood or spinal fluid.

The eventual hope is to diagnose Alzheimer's disease early in life, before symptoms occur and much of the damage has already been done.

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