Brain Scan to Detect Alzheimer’s Now Available at UAMC

The brain scan is safe, easy and takes about one hour. During the outpatient procedure, a drug travels through the patient's bloodstream to the brain, where it binds to any telltale amyloid plaques. UAMC is among the first hospitals in the nation to offer the test.
June 28, 2012
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Video: Rotating Brain Image Shows Amyloid Plaque


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Dr. Geoffrey L. Ahern
Dr. Geoffrey L. Ahern
Dr. Phillip H. Kuo
Dr. Phillip H. Kuo
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The University of Arizona Medical Center is among the first hospitals in the nation using a new brain-imaging drug that will lead to more accurate diagnoses of Alzheimer's disease.

UAMC is the first hospital in Southern Arizona to offer positron emission tomography, or PET, scans using Amyvid, an injectable radioactive dye approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in April.

A Tucson man with symptoms suggestive of Mild Cognitive Impairment (the prequel to Alzheimer's disease) underwent the outpatient procedure last week at The University of Arizona Medical Center-University Medical Imaging, said Dr. Phillip H. Kuo, chief of nuclear medicine in the UA department of medical imaging.

"We are very pleased to be one of the first sites in the country to offer patients this new molecular diagnostic tool," Kuo said. "While not a screening study, for patients with early or unusual symptoms of possible dementia, this scan can provide unique and invaluable information."

Amyvid scans allow doctors, for the first time, to visually detect plaques of beta amyloid found in the brains of Alzheimer's patients, without needing to resort to invasive spinal fluid tests or brain biopsy. The drug, manufactured by Eli Lilly, contains a radiopharmaceutical that binds specifically to the plaques.

The scan is safe, easy and takes about one hour. During the outpatient procedure, the drug is injected into a vein and travels through the bloodstream to the brain, where it binds to any telltale amyloid plaques. 

A PET scanner picks up the radioactive signal and creates an image of the brain showing the location, density and extent of any amyloid plaques. A radiologist or nuclear medicine specialist with specific training interprets the scan.

Combined with memory tests and other findings, the scans help physicians diagnose or rule out Alzheimer's disease, or distinguish it from other types of dementia. 

Even though Alzheimer's disease is incurable, promising treatments are on the horizon that may slow the progression of the disease, said neurologist Dr. Geoffrey L. Ahern, a professor in the UA department of neurology and director of the Behavioral Neuroscience and Alzheimer's Clinic at The University of Arizona Medical Center.

"Recent research in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease has made us aware that treatment needs to be started early, perhaps even before obvious dementia has set in," said Ahern, principal investigator of the UA clinical trials that led to Amyvid's approval by the FDA. 

"Perhaps the most exciting thing about this scan is that we can make a diagnosis much earlier than can be done currently, as it is known that changes in the brain may precede the actual symptoms of Alzheimer's disease by as much as 10 or 20 years," Ahern said.

"We might see a day in the near future where patients are treated for Alzheimer's disease before they ever show any clinical signs and before the disease has had a chance to wreak havoc on their brains."

The drug is not yet reimbursed by Medicare, so patients should check with their insurance companies or pay for the procedure out of pocket. UAMC is charging a reduced rate of $2,500.