Using MRI scans to improve the lives of dementia patients
- Researchers at the University of Manchester are using MRI scans to better predict the progression of dementia
- Hamied Haroon, leading on this research, will speak at the British Science Festival at the University of Exeter
In the UK, 5-20% of over 60s population experience mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a decline in one cognitive area, such as memory, language, spatial orientation, or forward planning, over time. MCI is confirmed by pen-and-paper testing.
Though patients exhibiting MCI don't necessarily have dementia they often suffer with conditions linked to dementia like Alzheimer's disease, and have a higher risk of developing dementia in the two years following diagnosis of MCI.
MCI patients who do go onto to exhibit symptoms of dementia experience a very slow progression of symptoms, which may be between five and 10 years. This uncertainty causes stress on patients and their families, as it is difficult to plan ahead for their life and care needs.
It has however, been established that high levels of Tau and altered levels of Amyloid proteins – also indicative of Alzheimer's disease – can predict progression and onset of dementia accurately. Tau and Amyloid can be measured in a number of ways, for example either PET or within the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) obtained via a lumbar puncture.
Where PET scans are expensive and lumbar punctures largely perceived as risky or dangerous by patients, MRI scans are accessible and affordable. The technology is more readily available than PET scanners or the clinical skills required for a lumbar puncture.
MR imaging allows us to map the brain non-invasively and repeatability, as there is no ionising radiation involved, providing unique insights on the brain’s organisation and function in health and ageing. We are developing exciting analysis methods to detect the earliest signs of such devastating conditions as dementia, when promising new therapies should have better chances of halting the disease in its tracks
Diffusion MRI, specifically, is used to look at the neuronal architecture of the brain. Researchers are able to see patterns of neuronal connections and their arrangements using this technique and therefore can identify normal and abnormal patterns. What constitutes as healthy ageing in the brain is becoming well established, the neuronal patterns people with dementia develop are also becoming better characterised. The brain looks as if it's aged more, and quicker, in people with dementia.
Hamied Haroon and the team of neuroimaging researchers at the University of Manchester are currently trying to develop new techniques in MRI scanning and image analysis to support this. They’re improving our capacity to measure loss of brain cells as this loss is the root cause of many symptoms of dementia.
Additionally, they’re developing novel methods to measure the changes in blood delivery to the brain, and therefore the availability of oxygen. Lack of oxygen also leads to cell death which may advance vascular dementia.
Hamied Haroon, Research Fellow in Quantitative Biomedical Magnetic Resonance Imaging, University of Manchester, says:
“MR imaging allows us to map the brain non-invasively and repeatability, as there is no ionising radiation involved, providing unique insights on the brain’s organisation and function in health and ageing.
“We are developing exciting analysis methods to detect the earliest signs of such devastating conditions as dementia, when promising new therapies should have better chances of halting the disease in its tracks.”