With more than 4.5 million Americans already diagnosed and the baby-boomer generation steadily aging, Alzheimer’s disease is increasingly robbing many of their golden years. However, technological advancements have provided a way for doctors to peer into the future and give some patients a chance to fight its debilitating effects longer than they could have otherwise.
PET scanners, originally designed to diagnose and stage a patient’s cancer progression, are now being used for early detection of Alzheimer’s disease, allowing patients to begin treatments earlier.
New Hanover Regional Medical Center became the first hospital in its region to install and begin using a combination PET/CT scanner in October 2004. A PET scanner, or positron emission tomography, uses more precise and detailed pictures to gather information about a body’s functions than what is typically available through a CT or MRI scan alone.
The PET scanner is used primarily in planning cancer treatments, but is also being used at NHRMC to perform brain scans that allow for early detection of Alzheimer’s. These scans are also used to differentiate Alzheimer's from other types of dementia or depression that appear with aging.
“There are individual cases of patients where the precision of the diagnosis is very important and for those patients it can be very important in helping them plan their lives,” said Neurologist J. Thaddeus Coin, PhD, MD.
The scanner shows a consistent diagnostic pattern for Alzheimer's disease by revealing the amount of glucose metabolized in each region of the brain. This pattern can often be recognized several years before a physician is able to confirm an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
Patients who have early diagnoses can begin proper medical treatment sooner, thereby decreasing the later repercussions of the disease. Early diagnosis also allows drug therapy to slow the loss of functions, time to plan before the loss of mental capacity and assurance for patients who do not have Alzheimer’s.
“Everything will change once we have a treatment that reverses the disease,” said Coin, emphasizing that these scans will become more important. For more information about PET scans, call 343.2114.