Brain Scans and Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer’s is a progressive disease that destroys several areas of the brain, causing dementia. The symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease include memory loss, mood swings, and changes in personality and behavior. The average age of onset is 65, but nearly four percent of people with Alzheimer’s developed the disease as early as their 40s. These cases are known as younger-onset, or early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease. However, if detected early, doctors can take steps to delay the onset or slow the progression of the disease. Brain imaging, also known as brain scans or neuroimaging, can detect early signs of Alzheimer’s.

Diagnostic Scans to Detect Alzheimer's

There are two major diagnostic scans used to detect or diagnose Alzheimer’s: the CT (computed tomography) scan and the MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).

The CT scan or CT Head Scan is a type of x-ray that can take multiple images of the brain. The MRI scan uses high-powered magnets to capture the images. Both scans show the structure of the brain and highlight anything that could be causing a problem, including tumors, weak blood vessels, and the brain tissue loss associated with Alzheimer’s.

For example, in a person with Alzheimer’s, a section of the brain called the hippocampus will be significantly smaller than this section appears in the brain of someone without Alzheimer's.

Your doctor might request an EEG (electroencephalogram) to review your brainwave activity. Although early stages of Alzheimer’s might not reveal any anomalies, other brain disorders, like Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), will. In this sense, the EEG is not necessarily a tool for diagnosing Alzheimer’s, but rather a tool for ruling out other possible causes of brain and cognitive issues.

Your doctor might also order a PET scan to view your brain function. Like the EEG, the PET scan may not necessarily show the minute damage associated with the early stages of Alzheimer’s, but it can rule out other sources of dementia.

Scientists are currently studying the use of PET scans with chemical tracers as a diagnostic tool. Alzheimer’s leaves traces of a chemical, called amyloid deposits, on the brain. PET scans use a chemical tracer that binds with these deposits. If these deposits show up on the PET scan image, then it’s a sign of Alzheimer’s.

Recognizing the Signs & Symptoms of Alzheimer's

Getting the correct scan to help detect Alzheimer’s is not the most challenging issue with this disease, the real challenge is recognizing the symptoms that indicate you may need to get a medical check-up and a diagnosis.

It’s easy to ignore the early symptoms of the disease or, worse, not recognize the symptoms.

For example, after a certain age everyone starts to experience memory problems. We have all complained about going into a room and forgetting why we are there. However, when those incidents happen more often, or when you find yourself forgetting something that just happened a few minutes ago, that could be the sign of a deeper issue.

Friends and family members can also have problems recognizing that something is wrong.

For example, Alzheimer’s can cause personality changes. If the person goes from being sweet and easygoing to depressed and aggressive, you would probably notice. However, if the person goes from being depressed and aggressive to more depressed and aggressive, this is a more subtle change, and you might not realize that anything unusual is happening.

This is why it is important to know the common signs and symptoms of Alzheimer's , so that you may be more likely to notice changes and discuss them with your doctor. The signs and symptoms of Alzheimer's may include:

  • Decline in cognitive function – mental activities, like solving math problems, understanding instructions, or making decisions, become more difficult
  • Aphasia – trouble finding the right word, or often using the wrong word, or using the right word incorrectly
  • Decline in motor skills – handwriting becomes illegible, more difficulty dressing, and difficulty holding things or picking things up
  • Difficulty processing information – familiar sights and sounds become unfamiliar. For example, a person may not answer the telephone because they don’t understand what the ringing sound means.
  • Hallucinations – Hearing voices or phantom sounds, seeing visions.

Having any or all of these symptoms could indicate Alzheimer’s or some other brain disorder, and should be discussed with your doctor.

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