PET Scans Show Many Being Treated for Alzheimer’s May Not Have Disease

A new study presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in London has found that a significant amount of people with dementia or mild cognitive impairment who are being treated for Alzheimer’s may not actually have the disease.PET Scans Show Many Being Treated for Alzheimer's May Not Have Disease

Learn more about this study, its results and how it may encourage more insurance coverage for PET scans.

PET Scans Show Many Treated for Alzheimer’s

At the Alzheimer’s Association International Convention, researchers presented the results from a four-year study launched in 2016 that will evaluate the presence of beta-amyloid in over 18,000 Medicare beneficiaries. The study has yielded staggering results with the brain scans of 4,000 participants showing that many being treated for Alzheimer’s have no beta-amyloid present in their brain.

Researchers used PET imaging to scan the brains of people with dementia or mild cognitive impairment (MCI) to see if they had beta-amyloid plaques in their brains. Beta-amyloid plaques are a hallmark characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease. While the presence of amyloid does not mean a person has Alzheimer’s, it often precedes a diagnosis and can increase the likelihood of a diagnosis. A negative test for amyloid means that Alzheimer’s is not present.

The “Imaging Dementia-Evidence for Amyloid Scanning (IDEAS)” study found that of the 4,000 participants tested so far, only 54.3% of people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and only 70.5% of people with dementia had beta-amyloid plaques. Alzheimer’s was the suspected culprit of cognitive impairment in over 76% of participants.

Until recently, Alzheimer’s was only able to be diagnosed after death through an autopsy. Today, the disease can be diagnosed through PET imaging or a spinal tap. Additionally, researchers are working on a non-invasive blood test that can diagnose the disease. Because  PET scans are expensive and spinal taps are invasive, most people do not undergo these tests to determine if they actually have the disease. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services agreed to cover the tests for the IDEAS study and researchers are hopeful their staggering results will convince insurance companies to cover future tests.

Study Results in Changed Care Plans, New Treatments

Finding that so many being treated for Alzheimer’s without the presence of beta-amyloid plaques is changing the way they are being treated for cognitive issues. Over 400 doctors enrolled patients in the study and wrote care plans stating how each patient would be treated based on clinical issues. However, after seeing the PET imaging results, doctors changed the care plans for 66% of their patients.

James Hendrix, the Alzheimer’s Association’s director of global science initiatives explained, “If someone had a putative diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, they might be on an Alzheimer’s drug like Aricept or Namenda. What if they had a PET scan and it showed that they didn’t have amyloid in their brain? Their physician would take them off that drug and look for something else.” He admits the results of the study are surprising, saying:

“We thought we would be able to see about a 30% change, but we’re getting a 66% change, so it’s huge. We see high percentages of people who are on a drug and didn’t need to be on those drugs.”

Have you had a PET scan done? How are you or a senior loved one being treated for Alzheimer’s? We’d like to hear more about your experiences in the comments below.

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