New research from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis suggests Doctors may one day be able to study MRI scans to determine a patient's risk of developing dementia, which today affects more than 50 million people worldwide. The number of cases of dementia is slated to nearly triple by 2050, according to the World Health Organization.
»RELATED: This new eye scan could detect alzheimer's in seconds, studies find
While PET scans are known to be good at detecting early signs for Alzheimer's disease, the scans cost upwards of thousands of dollars and require specific radioactive materials, thus few and far between MRI scans, on the other hand, are widely available
For the new, small study of just 20 individuals, researchers used MRI scans and predicted with 89 percent accuracy who will go on to develop dementia within three years.
»RELATED: US Alzheimer's, dementia burden to double by 2060, CDC warns
Lead author Cyrus Raji, an assistant professor of radiology at Washington University's Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology, and his colleagues identified 10 people with decreasing cognitive skills and matched them with 10 others with steady cognitive skills.
They then used a technique called diffusion tension imaging to study the individuals' brains, specifically the white matter in their brains.
»RELATED: How women's history of miscarriage, pregnancy could predict Alzheimer's risk
This MRI technique tracks the movement of water molecules in the brain, a measurement known as fractional anisotropy (FA). When someone has healthy white matter in the brain, water molecule movement is "fairly uniform."
"If water molecules are not moving normally it suggests underlying damage to white tracts that can solve problems with cognition," Raji said in a university article.
Raji and his team found that the people who experienced significant cognitive decline showed white matter damage more signs.
»RELATED: US Alzheimer's deaths up 55 percent, CDC says
Even after repeating the analysis in 61 other people using "a more refined measure of white matter integrity," the scientists were able to predict the cognitive decline with 89 percent accuracy when the whole brain was studied. Accuracy jumped to 95 percent A single MRI scan was able to predict dementia about 2.6 years before memory loss is typically clinically detectable.
"We could say that the people who went on to develop dementia have had these differences on diffusion MRI, compared with scans of cognitively normal people whose memory and thinking skills remained intact," Raji said. But before diffusion MRIs can become part of a clinical routine, more research is needed.
»RELATED: How does Alzheimer's disease kill you?
Scientists need to "get more control subjects and develop computerized tools that can reliably compare individual patients' scans to a basiceline standard," Raji added. "With that, doctors may soon be able to tell people whether they have had Alzheimer's development in the next few years."
He and his fellow researchers presented their new findings on Sunday at the Radiological Society of North America meeting in Chicago.
Read the full school announcement at medicine.wustl.edu