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MRI software accurately IDs preclinical Alzheimer’s disease

Massachusetts General Hospital researchers are using automated MRI software to detect individuals in the preclinical phase of Alzheimer's disease with 95% accuracy, according to a cohort study.

The sooner physicians can diagnosis Alzheimer's disease (AD), the better. Early diagnosis means better treatment for the patient and more options for care.

Traditionally, AD has been diagnosed through a neurologic exam, detailed medical history, and written tests, with neuroimaging being used to rule out other conditions like stroke or a brain tumor. This study shows the potential and feasibility of an automated, MRI-based software program to find and define diagnostic markers for AD.

Dr. Rahul Desikan, a researcher at MGH, and colleagues verified which regions of the brain are affected by AD and mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a transitional phase between normal aging and Alzheimer's.

Based on earlier pathological and imaging studies, the investigators confirmed that individuals with AD or MCI demonstrate a significant difference in thickness and volume in their entorhinal cortex, hippocampus, and supramarginal gyrus (Brain 2009 May 21 epub ahead of print).

Once the researchers verified which regions of the brain are affected, they processed MRI scans of individuals with AD and MCI using FreeSurfer, openly available software developed at MGH and the University of California, San Diego. The software can be found at

In their first cohort, involving 97 subjects, the researchers differentiated controls from MCI patients with 91% accuracy.

In the second cohort, involving 216 individuals, the researchers distinguished MCI patients from normal controls with 95% accuracy. They identified Alzheimer's patients with 100% accuracy.

Currently Medicare has approved an FDG-PET protocol for imaging Alzheimer's, but Desikan said MRI can provide different information.

"The current Medicare-approved FDG-PET protocol is mainly helpful for differentiating between dementia subtypes, specifically, differentiating frontotemporal dementia from Alzheimer's disease. Our MRI-based protocol is mainly for identifying those individuals who are in the preclinical phase of Alzheimer's disease," Desikan said.

Using MRI techniques and not just FDG-PET to image Alzheimer's patients could have repercussions for research and treatment, according to Desikan. "These techniques have powerful implications for clinical trials, specifically in their use as a longitudinal biomarker that can assess and quantify the efficacy of treatments," he said.

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