Imaging and the Brain

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.


PET machine, found online


  1. I’m always sceptical of neuropsychology. Despite all the recent tech advances they are still scratching at the surface, trying to interpret signals from individual neurons. Meanwhile the brain has millions of neurons and millions more connections. I think what irks me is that the public (us) are teased with news that cures for dementia are around the corner.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree there is a great deal of confusion about technology and cure. The technology allows the imaging to zero in on specific neurons and dendrites and to appreciate the synapse and their integrity with regions of the brain. Given this technology our scientist will have greater tools to research the systems in the brain and those most costly to our cognitive well-being. Numbs we are living at a time that allows us to see what is happening to the brain in real time – all we have to do is develop a treatment to slow the degradation of axon transmission and cell death. This is what is important. I have a mother with dementia and I am heartbroken by this. But I am encouraged how close we are to slowing the tau protein and apoptosis (cell death) associated with dementia. When can we expect a cure? I don’t know but we are closer having the technology Mr Crain has described – Thank you for your time reviewing the paper and posting your words. #viccrain

      Liked by 3 people

      • Thanks for answering. As a social worker I worked for years with demented clients and their families. My Mom had dementia when she died. Deterioration of neurons has long been observed in post mortems. Understanding basic physiology will always yield therapies and benefits, but thinking that a cure is around the corner is not therapeutic. The more we learn the better, tho.


  2. I’m sensitive to this topic because my father died from vascular dementia, a grueling and over long process abetted by a stepmother in complete denial. Very ugly and painful. That said, my hope as you stated, Doctor, is that we will find a tool that will retard degradation, and that the ability to monitor in real time will expedite finding that tool. My experience was a five year train wreck, and I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.


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