A new way of scanning the brain could allow doctors to diagnose the most common form of dementia earlier when treatments could be more beneficial.

Experts says diagnosing Alzheimer's disease is not easy because early abnormalities, such as the emergence of protein plaques, are similar to normal ageing.

Patients diagnosed with symptoms are most likely already in the middle or late stage of the disease. 

The brain uses lots of energy when it working efficiently and a strong indicator of the disease is the low ability of brain cells to use glucose. 

Levels are normally checked using PET scans (positron emission topography) but it is expensive and involves radiation so patients cannot be scanned too frequently.

A recently developed method, called Chemical Exchange Saturation Transfer (CEST), can image brain glucose using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) which is more widely available and has no radiation exposure risk to patients.

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The University of Aberdeen team will study, for the first time, if CEST can detect differences in glucose concentration between patients with Alzheimer’s disease and volunteers without symptoms of similar age. 

The technique has been used in the detection of brain tumours.

"Diagnosing Alzheimer's Disease is really difficult, "said Dr Gordon Waiter, Director of the Aberdeen Biomedical Imaging Centre at the University of Aberdeen.

"Most available treatments aim at controlling symptoms at early stage rather than providing a cure. Therefore, early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is important

"Your brain uses lots of energy when it is working and that comes in the form of glucose.

"Unfortunately of the markers of Alzheimer's Disease is that parts of the brain don't work as well as they did before and they use less glucose.

"What we are hoping to see in the scan are areas of the brain where there is less glucose uptake in people with Alzheimer's Disease compared to people without Alzheimer's Disease.

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"We are hoping that MRI, which has no radiation and is much more widely available give us a more widely available solution.

"The main advantage would be earlier detection we hope."

Research shows that in 2019 there were over 850,000 people with dementia in the UK – which represents 1 in every 14 of the population aged 65 years and over. In 2040 it is forecast there will be over 1.5 million people with dementia in the UK.

Recent findings have shown that abnormal clearance of waste in the glymphatic system - the lymphatic system in the brain - is one of the hallmarks of early Alzheimer's disease.

The glymphatic system is a drainage-like system for cerebrospinal fluid to flow through the brain tissue called brain parenchyma, thus facilitating efficient clearance of solutes such as glucose and protein waste from the brain.

CEST has already been used in trials on mice by scientists from the USA, Sweden and Hong Kong which found that glucose uptake was lower in the mice with Alzheimer's Disease.

Dr Waiter said: "Chemical Exchange Saturation Transfer is a promising new method for diagnosing this disease and this important study will give us more information about its effectiveness as a diagnostic tool. 

The study, which is funded by the Chief Scientist Office (CSO), is now preparing to recruit participants.