New imaging method reveals how Alzheimer’s reshapes the brain

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Researchers at Yale University have led development in to a new type of brain scan designed to detect changes in synapses associated with common brain disorders. Until now, researchers have only be able to detect these changes during autopsies, but by combining a Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scan with a new type of injectable tracer, Yale radiology and biomedical imagining professor Richard Carson was able to measure the synaptic density in a living brain. According to the findings published in Science Translational Medicine Wednesday, the technique could help doctors better understand and treat a wide range of neurological conditions from epilepsy to Alzheimer’s disease.

To achieve their goal, Dr. Carson and his team developed a new radioactive tracer that binds with a key protein in the synapses of the brain. The tracer is visible through a traditional PET scan and Dr. Carson’s team applied a mathematical formula to the results to determine the synaptic density. According to the university, the imaging technique has already been used on both baboon and human subjects, and it has already been used to show lower synaptic density in three patients with epilepsy compared to healthy individuals.

"This is the first time we have synaptic density measurement in live human beings," Dr. Carson said. "Up to now any measurement of synaptic density was postmortem."

Moving forward, Carson and the team believe this method could be use to track the progression of degenerative brain disorders or to track the effectiveness of medications meant to slow the loss of neurons. The team is already planning to use the same method in similar studies for Alzheimer’s schizophrenia, depression and Parkinson’s disease.