South Jersey physicians, radiologists, technicians and neuroscientists are teaming up with other experts around the country to conduct one of the world’s largest brain-scanning research studies ever done for diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease.
Atlantic Medical Imaging in Somers Point and the Center for Diagnostic Imaging in Vineland will conduct brain scans on qualified patients identified by neurologists in Galloway Township, Vineland and Somers Point for the IDEAS study, which aims to determine how valuable PET scans are in diagnosing Alzheimer’s.
The study will look at how useful positron emission tomography scans are for diagnosing or ruling out Alzheimer’s in Medicare dementia patients 65 and older. It also will look at how results improve treatment. More than 18,000 patient cases within two years will be used for the study.
“As we get older, lots of people have memory complaints,” said Dr. Maureen Gottfried, a referring neurologist at Coastal Physicians and Surgeons in Somers Point. “We’ve never been this age, so we don’t know what to expect. All tests we have so far are to exclude other diagnoses. (Alzheimer’s) is still hard to diagnose.”
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The Alzheimer’s Association predicts about 170,000 people in New Jersey will be living with the disease this year. That number is expected to jump to 210,000 people in 2025, according to the association.
The death rate among Americans rose for the first time in a decade last year, according to preliminary federal data, and there was an uptick in deaths attributed to Alzheimer’s.
Imaging Dementia — Evidence for Amyloid Scanning, or IDEAS, was developed in response to a U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services decision in 2013 to not provide coverage for PET scans, due to a lack of evidence showing that scans were necessary to diagnose, treat or improve the function of patients with dementia or neurodegenerative disease. The agency found only that the scans helped exclude Alzheimer’s disease in patients with a difficult clinical diagnosis.
Gottfried said she hopes study results prove PET scans can “help with more definitive diagnoses, help with medications early on, counseling, planning and making life decisions.”
Neurologists such as Gottfried will identify people who are experiencing unexplained mild cognitive impairment, likely a form of dementia, for the study. Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia, accounting for 60 percent to 80 percent of cases.
A PET scan requires someone to get an injection of a radioactive substance that collects in certain parts of the body or brain. Radiologists then see whether brain scans show evidence of amyloid (plaque), the hallmark sign of Alzheimer’s.
Dr. David Levi, Atlantic Medical Imaging president and CEO, said the imaging center will have a team of subspecialty radiologists who will analyze the scans and submit them to the study.
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“I can say, personally, my grandmother had the disease and it’s a tough illness to watch,” he said. “If we can make a difference in patients’ lives, be able to provide the typical level of service with a national trial, that’s what we’re about.”
The scans show the state of a brain now, Gottfried said. A scan might show plaque, which means a physician specializing in dementia might then be able to prescribe medication specifically for Alzheimer’s. On the other hand, the scan might show no plaque, which may help that physician adjust treatment.
The important thing to keep in mind, Gottfried said, is that the scans show the “here and now.” A person can still develop the disease in the future, even if the scan is negative for plaque today.
Gottfried, like Levi, knows personally how dementia affects people. Her grandfather had a form of it, and she went into neurology to contribute to research and science dedicated to better treatment for such diseases.
“Hopefully the study shows that PET scans lead to earlier diagnoses, more accurate treatment and better outcomes,” she said. “I might not use Medicare now, but I’m going to be one of those people some day. The medical community keeps looking for better ways to help people to get better treatment.”