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PET Scans May Lead to Changes in Alzheimer’s Treatment

Could an expensive brain scan really help medical professionals to make an accurate diagnosis of Alzheimer’s? In many cases, a patient’s symptoms are clear-cut enough that a PET (positron emission tomography) scan is not required. However, there is a large group of patients whose memory problems are proving hard to pin down, and new research indicates that it is this group that could reap benefits from a PET scan, which could potentially lead to changes in treatment.

Alzheimer’s – Or Something Else?

Most people mistakenly believe that Alzheimer’s is the only type of dementia. It is certainly the most common form of the disease, but there are other conditions which can cause very similar symptoms. Memory problems could be an indication that the person is suffering from vascular dementia, for example, or dementia with Lewy bodies, which would require different forms of treatment. Memory problems can also be a sign of latent depression, so it’s important to try to establish the actual problem at an early stage in order to provide an appropriate treatment plan.

Until recently, the only way to be absolutely certain that someone definitely suffered from Alzheimer’s was to perform an autopsy and look for the tell-tale signs of amyloid plaques, which can confirm a definite diagnosis.

Ground-Breaking US Study

Now, thanks to an innovative new study taking place in the US, over 4000 patients on Medicare have been subjected to a PET scan. This gives a three-dimensional image of the brain, clearly showing where amyloid plaques are present. All of the patients had previously been given a diagnosis of MCI (mild cognitive impairment) or dementia, and the scans were used to determine whether or not Alzheimer’s was the cause of their memory problems. In the event, just over half of the participants suffering from MCI, and a little over two-thirds of the participants diagnosed with dementia, were found to have evidence of amyloid plaques.

Where Alzheimer’s is ruled out as a cause of a patient’s memory problems, treatments can be adjusted accordingly, avoiding the necessity for taking inappropriate drugs. Medical practitioners can then more easily establish the actual cause of the patient’s symptoms and diagnose and treat them, although there is still no known cure for dementia. However, correct and appropriate treatments can help to slow, or even halt, symptoms, leading to a better quality of life for the patient.

The US study is still in its early stages, with another three years’ worth of data to collect from 18,000 patients, but the initial findings are already causing excitement in the medical profession. In the past, US medical insurance companies have been reluctant to pay for the cost of PET scans for people with dementia symptoms, citing the lack of evidence that they could make a difference. However, the initial results of the research study are so unequivocal that this state of affairs could certainly change over the coming months and years, giving new hope for anyone suffering from cognitive problems.

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