doctor looking at brain scanWhen the signs are recognized, Alzheimer’s disease can be identified in the early stages. However, even when forgetfulness and other indicators are present, the diagnostic process is not always straightforward.

Alzheimer’s disease cannot be determined by a single blood test and the evaluation often requires multiple specialists to consult.

Also, one set of tests may not be enough. An evaluation may need to take place within six months to a year to observe the disease’s potential progression.

Confirming Diagnosis

In the early stages, you may be asked about your loved one’s cognitive changes, mood and personality shifts, as well as how these changes have impacted everyday life. To rule out other potential causes, your loved one’s medical history and medications may be reviewed.

For individuals who experienced a sudden shift in behavior and physical condition, your doctor may request a brain scan using computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Brain scans can indicate the presence of another illness or condition materializing from these symptoms – for instance, the buildup of cerebrospinal fluid around the brain.

Along with a brain scan, other diagnostic tests assist with ruling out anemia, HIV, infections, diabetes, kidney and liver disorders. They can also be used to assess related conditions like a Vitamin B12 deficiency, decreased thyroid function and a higher level of calcium in the blood.

While a brain scan can rule out other conditions, it also assists with identifying signs that indicate your loved one is developing Alzheimer’s disease.

How Brain Scans Assist with Identifying Dementia

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. A CT scan or MRI can assist with identifying a physical change or brain condition contributing to dementia or Alzheimer’s symptoms: These signs include:

  • Indication a stroke has occurred
  • Tumors
  • Ischemia
  • Changes to the blood vessels, including hemorrhaging
  • Hydrocephalus
  • Subdural hematomas
  • Cortical atrophy, or wrinkled ridges of tissue forming on the brain
  • Changes in the brain’s structure and functioning, including loss of brain mass

While dementia may be a symptom of the above conditions, an atrophied hippocampus is a sign of Alzheimer’s disease.

While preferred, CT and MRI scans might not deliver the results a doctor is seeking. If tests come back inconclusive, positron emission tomography (PET) and single-photon emission computed tomography might be requested. These scans examine various aspects of brain activity, including oxygen use and blood flow, and can identify symptoms that separate Alzheimer’s from other types of dementia.

Additionally, an electroencephalogram (EEG) may be requested to observe abnormal brain activity. While an EEG is not ideal for diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease, it can identify other conditions for which dementia and cognitive decline are symptoms. Furthermore, this test can detect the source of seizures – an issue for roughly 10 percent of Alzheimer’s patients.

Advancements for Alzheimer’s

The technology used for brain scans continues to improve, proving this test is essential to help determine if a patient is living with Alzheimer’s and for ruling out other conditions.

Alzheimer’s disease physically manifests through the presence of amyloid proteins, which resemble plaques and tau proteins, which appear tangled. Until recently, these aspects could only be observed through an autopsy conducted post-mortem.

Some of the latest advancements concerning the diagnostic process include the following:

  • PET scans now involve a chemical tracer that attaches to amyloid deposits –abnormal groups of cells. This procedure can help better identify Alzheimer’s in the early stages and differentiates multiple degenerative brain diseases. If a scan doesn’t identify these plaques, a patient likely has another condition.
  • Advances in MRI technology now allow radiologists to measure brain atrophy and detect blood flow changes, both of which can lead to a more accurate diagnosis.
  • Functional brain imaging technologies allow medical professionals to observe the brain in action, including specific metabolic changes and blood distribution that can indicate Alzheimer’s.

Despite these advancements, brain scans do not deliver absolute results. Other tests may be needed to determine if the changes in a patient’s brain are abnormal or age-related.
West Hartford Health & Rehabilitation Center has a dedicated Alzheimer’s and dementia care unit, overseen by staff trained under the Dementia Care Professionals of America®. To learn more about our services, contact us today.