HOUSTON—Until a month ago, the only definitive test to confirm a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease was a brain autopsy. Now, with the help of a new FDA approved procedure, doctors at Memorial Hermann are peering into the brains of living patients.
On June first, the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of a radioactive agent to highlight amyloid proteins in the brain that have been linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
Using a PET scan to view beta-amyloid neuritic plaque density highlighted by the use of Amyvid™, neurologists can detect, or rule out, the presence of the proteins and confirm if a patient’s symptoms are likely associated with Alzheimer’s or something more medically treatable like depression.
"It’s something that is very exciting to be making advances in the disease right now," said Memorial Hermann neurologist Paul Schulz, M.D. who has used the scan on four patients so far.
In each case, where a diagnosis initially wavered between Alzheimer’s and other possible conclusions like depression or stroke, the presence of amyloid plaque and a likely Alzheimer’s diagnosis was confirmed.
The procedure is not intended to peer into a healthy person’s brain and make a determination any future Alzheimer’s chances. The scan is looking for amyloid plaque in the brain of a patient who is already showing symptoms.
Schulz says the value of the brain scan is to make a diagnosis sooner, beginning treatments only for depression if indicated or steeling a family for the tough decisions that an Alzheimer’s diagnosis presents. Schulz says the other value is that the diagnostic tool represents another step in research on the long road to Alzheimer’s treatments.
"It’s very uplifting in terms of diagnosing people. And I think even more than that the research implications are immense," said Schulz. "We can now take people with the amyloid being deposited and enroll them in treatment trials to try to prevent the development of the disease."
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there are 5.4 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease at a medical cost of $200 billion in 2012. By 2050, the Alzheimer’s Association estimates that up to 16 million will have the disease. It is the 7th leading cause of death in the U.S.