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Winter 2009

Imaging May Aid Patients in Earliest Stages of Alzheimer's Disease


By spotting changes in the brain early, doctors can enroll patients in clinical trials and test new therapies to delay onset.

Advances in state-of-the-art imaging are revealing changes in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease years before they develop symptoms, paving the way for researchers to create more effective therapies.

“The best time to treat Alzheimer’s disease is before symptoms develop,” says John Mazziotta, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the Department of Neurology. “By identifying patients early and enrolling them in clinical trials, we can test new therapies with the goal of delaying onset and prolonging healthy life.”

At UCLA, studies have demonstrated the value of positron emission tomography (PET) scanning to not only diagnose Alzheimer’s disease in people with subtle symptoms but also to predict onset in high-risk patients and monitor its progression.

While imaging technology such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) enables physicians to see the structure of the brain, “PET enables us to see functional changes before there are structural changes,” says Gary Small, M.D., director of the UCLA Center on Aging.

A more recent development involves the use of a radioactive compound, FDDNP, in PET scans. FDDNP binds to the amyloid plaques and tangles that are believed to be the hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease to show the physical evidence of the disease for the first time in live patients. Dr. Small also is working with the UCLA Easton Alzheimer’s Disease Center to combine neuroimaging biomarkers like FDDNP with other measures taken from blood and cerebrospinal fluid to design new strategies to recognize and treat Alzeheimer’s disease.

Dr. Mazziotta points out that many promising Alzheimer’s drugs are in the pipeline but have, until now, been difficult to evaluate. “But being able to get a clear and objective signal from an imaging exam makes it much easier to find the treatments that are going to work in the presymptomatic phase,” he says.

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