There may soon be a new tool available to help doctors more firmly diagnose Alzheimer’s disease. The results of a study published April 27 in JAMA Neurology showed that Positron Emission Tomography (PET) imaging used in combination with flortaucipir tracer may help to confirm the presence of changes in the brain associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
The A16 study was made possible by the selfless participation of terminally ill patients who agreed to donate their brains to science after death. It involved 156 patients at 27 study sites across the U.S. (including the Memory and Aging Program at Butler Hospital) and one in Australia. Participants were all 50 years old or older with a diagnosed terminal illness and projected life expectancy of less than 6 months. All agreed to participate in PET imaging and to then donate their brain to science after their death for the purpose of postmortem examination.
Stephen Salloway, MD, MS, is Director of Neurology and the Memory and Aging Program at Butler Hospital and is the Martin M. Zucker professor of psychiatry and human behavior and professor of neurology at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. He is also one of the study’s authors.
“The participants of this study, ranging in age from 54-104 years old, were incredibly selfless in giving such a gift to further Alzheimer’s research,” Dr. Salloway said. “Our staff [at the Memory and Aging Program] worked hard on this project and we were all just in awe of the dedication of our participants and their families. The build-up of tau tangles in the brain is a key cause of Alzheimer’s disease and the development of tau PET is a milestone achievement. Thanks to our valiant study participants, we now have a new tool to accurately diagnose Alzheimer’s disease. We couldn’t be more thrilled about the study’s results, and we are hopeful that the FDA will soon approve flortaucipir as the first tau tracer for clinical use.”
Each participant underwent flortaucipier PET imaging of the brain to detect the presence of tau protein, one of the primary changes in the brain associated with the development of Alzheimer’s. Of all the enrolled study participants, 67 died within nine months of imaging and had a valid study autopsy completed. Changes in the brain found upon autopsy were compared to the results indicated by the scans.
Results showed that PET imaging with flortaucipir provides significant sensitivity and specificity for detecting tau protein in the brain. These were results were confirmed by a second set of independent physician readers of the PET scans in a follow-up validation study. The study also showed that the use of flortaucipir was safe, with relatively few adverse effects among patients.
The study’s authors concluded that in appropriate clinical cases of adults who have undergone adequate neurological assessment and have been evaluated for Alzheimer’s disease or other causes of cognitive decline, PET imaging with flortaucipir may help in establishing a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, and that further research is required into the potential value of flortaucipir imaging in earlier stages of the disease.
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