Alzheimer’s disease is a difficult condition to diagnose. People who have it often have memory issues or problems understanding things, but that alone doesn’t mean they have Alzheimer’s. There are actually many reasons for cognitive decline. However, these cognitive issues paired with the presence of clumps of amyloid proteins (called plaques) in the brain are an indication of Alzheimer’s. Until recently, the only way to find out if a patient had amyloid plaques in the brain was to do an autopsy after the patient’s death. This has now changed.This past spring, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a new drug, florbetapir, for use with Positron Emission Tomography, or PET imaging, to help diagnose Alzheimer’s disease by identifying amyloid plaques in the brain.

How does the test work? It is only for patients who are showing signs of cognitive decline and are being evaluated for Alzheimer’s disease. Florbetapir is a radioactive agent which is administered intravenously. It attaches to amyloid plaques in the brain and makes them appear visible during a PET scan. If the scan shows few amyloid plaques, then Alzheimer’s is less likely to be the cause of the patient’s cognitive problems. However, if the scan shows many plaques, then it is an indication of Alzheimer’s disease.

The benefit to the scan is that if a patient does have Alzheimer’s, the earlier it is diagnosed, the sooner treatment can begin. Since treatment can slow the progression of the disease, the sooner the diagnosis, the better. For more information about Alzheimer’s disease, visit the Alzheimer’s Association at http://www.alz.org/.