New Imaging Technique Could Vastly Improve Alzheimer’s Care

Dr. Mitchell Albert received a Weston Brain Institute grant of $709,650 to study new ways of using HP xenon gas functional MRI for the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease and treatment monitoring. The research could lead to earlier detection of this devastating disease when it is more manageable.

Is the future of early testing for Alzheimer’s disease being developed in Thunder Bay right now?

Dr. Mitchell Albert of the Thunder Bay Regional Health Research Institute and Lakehead University is heading up a team of researchers investigating a new method for detecting subtle changes in brain function. The method uses hyperpolarized (HP) xenon gas, a technique that Dr. Albert co-invented. When breathed in by the patient, the gas travels through the bloodstream and “lights up” areas of the brain during a functional MRI (fMRI) scan, providing up to 10 times more signal enhancement than traditional fMRI.

“For the first time ever, we were able to image the brain of an Alzheimer’s patient using HP xenon fMRI,” Dr. Albert said. As of February 2017, 18 individuals – a mix of healthy participants and those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease – had been scanned.

If the research is successful, HP xenon fMRI could be used for Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis and treatment monitoring. Although the research is far from complete, the results so far have been promising.

“What we found was that there were longer washout times (the amount of time it takes for the “lit up” area in an MRI image to fade) in participants with Alzheimer’s suggesting there is a slower blood flow in those individuals,” Dr. Albert said.

Signal enhancement is the key for early Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis using fMRI. It’s sort of like looking up at the stars. In Toronto, only the brightest stars can be seen so you don’t get a clear picture of the night sky. But in Thunder Bay, you can see whole constellations and even the Milky Way. In terms of fMRI, that means researchers – and eventually doctors – can see the brain function much more clearly, and be able to spot the telltale signs of Alzheimer’s disease in its earlier stages.

Early detection is important because although there is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, there are treatments that are more effective the earlier the disease is diagnosed.

“This will perhaps allow us to detect the Alzheimer’s disease biomarkers that are crucial for identifying this disease at its early stage – much earlier than is currently possible,” Dr. Albert said.

The research would not be possible without a grant from the Weston Brain Institute, which provided $709,650 to fund the three-year project. The Institute commits more than $11 million each year to support innovative research into degenerative brain diseases.

“The Weston Brain Institute is pleased to support this kind of critical high-risk, high-reward work,” said Alexandra Stewart, Executive Director at the Weston Brain Institute. “If successful, Dr. Albert’s imaging tools will be of great impact in developing effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease.”