The brains of people who suffer from Alzheimer's disease eventually become clogged with a tangle of abnormal proteins. But it is impossible to know, for sure, if a person has the mind-robbing disease. Existing medical equipment can't detect the protein deposits. So, doctors must rely on mental tests to make a tentative diagnosis.
However, U.S. researchers have developed a new "imaging compound" which could make it easier for doctors to identify people at risk of Alzheimer's -- even before they are showing obvious signs of the disease.
When the compound, known as FDDNP, is injected into patients, it temporarily binds to the tangles. This makes the abnormal proteins visible in high-tech PET scans of the brain.
In a study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the researchers showed the compound was effective in helping them spot the difference between patients with healthy brains and those suffering from early and late-stage Alzheimer's.
There is currently no effective treatment to stop the advance of the disease, although some drugs provide temporary benefit.
But Gary Small, one of the researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, says the scanning technique could aid in the testing and development of new drugs.
Scientists would be able to accurately determine whether an experimental treatment is having a positive effect by monitoring what happens to the abnormal protein deposits, he said.