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MRI May Spot Early Signs of Mental Decline

But scientists stress this doesn't mean seniors should rush to get the scans; more study needed

MRI May Spot Early Signs of Mental Decline

TUESDAY, Oct. 7, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan that measures blood flow in the brain may help predict which older adults are at risk for future memory loss, according to a study published online Oct. 7 in Radiology.

Sven Haller, M.D., of the University Hospitals of Geneva, and colleagues tested an MRI technique known as arterial spin labeling, which gauges blood flow in brain tissue. Unlike positron emission tomography scans, the technique uses no radiation, and adds only a few minutes to a standard MRI. The researchers scanned 148 men and women, mostly in their 70s, who had no symptoms of impaired memory -- as well as 65 older adults who were mildly impaired.

At the study's start, the unimpaired group took standard tests of memory, planning, and other mental skills. They took the same tests again 18 months later. At that point, the researchers found, almost half of the group was showing a subtle decline. When the researchers looked back at the MRI images, they found a pattern: The scans tended to show lower blood flow to certain brain regions in older adults who would go on to have a decline in mental function. The study authors reported that the scans from those study participants looked similar to those from the group with mild impairment.

The results do not indicate regular brain scans for adults, the researchers stressed. But with more study, the MRI technique might prove useful for catching mental decline early. "That's the aim in the long term," Haller told HealthDay. He added that the technology could be used in research -- specifically, to select patients for clinical trials testing new drugs to prevent or slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease.

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