Advances in imaging technology are essential to better results for patients. The latest improvement is for dementia.
An old saying in business management is that “you can’t manage something if you can’t measure it.” The medical equivalent is that “you can’t treat something if you can’t see it.” It’s the reason certain kinds of cancers are so problematic. The pancreas is hidden below and behind the stomach and there’s no easy way to see a growth on the cervix or in the esophagus. Most of the time, by the time a patient recognizes there might be a problem, it’s already Stage 4 with little chance of survival.
Cutting open bodies to see what’s inside is costly and has a host of associated risks: infections, anesthesia impact on brain function, the creation of scars, etc. It’s not something you do unless absolutely necessary. When the body part in question is the brain, the risks are much higher.
A new NIH report highlights the role of “tracers” in enabling us to see details of the living brain that were inaccessible until now. Tracers are chemicals that can bind with what we want to see, effectively making the target visible.
Neurologists have long hypothesized that the loss of connections between neurons contributes to the development of dementia. The problem is that the connections — synapses — are tiny and until now couldn’t be studied in a living brain.
Now we have a PET tracer that works with synapses. This allows us to see and measure the density of synapses in normal individuals as wall as those with Alzheimer’s and other disorders.
The study using this tracer appears to confirm the relationship between loss of synapses and severity of dementia.(1) Going forward, this technology may allow us to measure the affect of different treatments on retaining synapses, That’s a clearer and more objective measure of success than what we have had up to this time.
It will be interesting to see what this tracer can show us about concussions.