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New brain scanner makes dementia visible earlier


Significantly smaller and cheaper: Detect dementia earlier thanks to new devices

In Germany alone, around 1.2 million people suffer from dementia, the majority of them from Alzheimer's. There are around 47 million dementia patients worldwide. So far, the neurodegenerative disease has not been curable. However, if she is diagnosed early, she may be stopped. A new brain scanner could help to identify dementia earlier.

Early diagnosis is important

As with many other diseases, it is important in Alzheimer's to diagnose the disease as early as possible. Although the disease cannot yet be cured at the moment, there are indications that a delay in the course of the disease can be achieved with an early diagnosis. A new brain scanner, developed by researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, could be helpful here.

Young researchers are working on a new PET brain scanner

The two ETH particle physicists Jannis Fischer and Max Ahnen are in the process of improving the diagnosis of Alzheimer's.

According to a statement from the Swiss university, the young researchers are currently developing a PET brain scanner that is said to cost less and be smaller than the ones that are currently used.

To this end, it has included the US business magazine "Forbes" in its "30 Under 30 Europe 2018" list in the science and health category, which annually honors "the most intelligent young entrepreneurs and inventors" in various areas.

"We are proud that we made it onto the list," said 30-year-old Jannis Fischer, whose colleague is 29 years old. "Next year we would have been too old for that."

Imaging method for the detection of various diseases

Positron emission tomography, or PET for short, is an imaging method in nuclear medicine. It is primarily used to detect cancer, but also nerve and heart diseases.

To do this, a weakly radioactive substance is injected into the patient's arm vein. The PET scanner processes the type and location where the substance accumulates in the tissue into an image.

This picture provides information about which functions the corresponding body part performs. PET scanners can help detect certain nerve diseases ten to twenty years earlier before a doctor can diagnose them based on specific symptoms.

The problem of why this is not done: Today's devices are large and expensive. A conventional device needs at least 15 square meters of space and costs between 1.5 and 5.5 million Swiss francs (equivalent to between 1.27 and 4.67 million euros).

Cheaper and smaller

Ahnen and Fischer are working at the Institute for Particle and Astrophysics at ETH Zurich to change this situation. This was initiated by researchers and doctors from the University of Zurich and the University Hospital Zurich.

Her invention is provisionally called Brain PET (BPET) and is used to detect diseases of the brain. These include brain tumors and diseases of the nervous system such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson's or Alzheimer's.

BPET should only cost a tenth as much as today's devices. In addition, the scanner should measure less than two square meters. "It resembles a hairdressing chair with a hood," says Ahnen. The size makes it much more mobile than conventional devices.

This would allow doctors to use it in places away from large hospitals, such as in small clinics in South America, Asia or Africa.

Not only the device, but also its use is cheaper with Brain PET. Because the more often the process is used, the less the radioactive aids cost.

Today, the examination is one of the most expensive imaging procedures in modern medicine. Many clinics cannot afford that. "We will be able to reach much broader groups of the population than before," said Fischer.

That would help those affected, but also their relatives. Both physicists had dementia patients in the family.

"It is difficult to see how a personality crumbles," says Ahnen. The father of three young children wants to improve the situation for the next generation.

Company foundation is pending

BPET is still only available on paper. The two are in the process of founding their own company and building a prototype by September 2018.

Ancestors and Fischer dealt with the PET scanners during and after their doctoral theses at ETH. "It was clear to me: You can really improve something here," said Ahnen. The two physicists from Germany are at exactly the right place at ETH.

"The close collaboration between doctors and particle physicists creates space for new developments," explains Fischer, adding: "The knowledge is there. Here you swim in an ecosystem of experts. ”

Brain PET is expected to come onto the market in 2021. This is "optimistic but realistic". The timing is important: Because at this time, pharmaceutical companies are also planning to introduce new Alzheimer's drugs.

In line with early PET detection, these should be able to be used to combat dementia-causing diseases before the brain substance breaks down. (ad)

Author and source information

Video: Can brain scans be used to diagnose Alzheimers? with Dr. Craig Stark (August 2020).