Researchers Use MRI Scans to Predict Alzheimer’s Disease

Josey Tsao/UCSD Guardian

Researchers are using MRI scans to more accurately diagnose Alzheimer’s disease, which is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States and the only one in the top 10 that cannot be prevented, cured or slowed.

Radiology professor Linda McEvoy and her team are analyzing MRI scans of patients with mild cognitive impairment — memory and coordination loss that does not significantly impact daily life.

Fifteen percent of people diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment eventually develop Alzheimer’s disease, compared to the general population’s rate of 1 to 2 percent.

McEvoy’s research helps determine whether someone is suffering from mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease, since the prognosis leads to very different treatment plans.

By looking at the scans, they then analyze the atrophy level — the level of degeneration — in various areas of the brain.

Specific patterns of atrophy are indicative of an individual’s risk. The study, which began in 2006, tracks patients with Alzheimer’s disease over three years and takes various forms of data, including MRIs, which are made publicly available for researchers.

“We can calculate a risk for an individual [by analyzing atrophy levels],” McEvoy said. “The hope is one day doctors can use this … Right now, we do not know the key trigger of the disease.”

The study shows that patients that are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease also suffer from patterns of thinning in the brain’s outermost layer of the cerebral hemisphere, an area that functions in memory, attention and language.

If data taken over a course of time is provided, researchers can determine the atrophy rate at which the disease is progressing. To obtain this information, doctors use structural MRI scans, which give detailed information about the atrophy levels in the brain.

By analyzing MRI scans over a course of time, researchers found that people with mild cognitive impairment had an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers determined that they had anywhere from a 3- to 69- percent chance of the disease progressing, with an average of 27 percent.

McEvoy’s research can help establish better clinical trials by giving researchers the ability to see who is at higher risk for the disease at the onset, then providing drugs and analyzing the results over a course of time via MRI scans.

“We did this for two reasons,” McEvoy said. “One: to get people better care if doctors are aware of the issues, and two, to help with clinical trials, in potentially modifying the disease course, by seeing if a drug actually has an effect.”

McEvoy’s research now focuses on using cerebral spinal fluid levels in the spine and MRIs to determine a connection to Alzheimer’s disease. She is now researching how to use MRI scans to determine risk more viable in a publicly available setting.

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