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Tau PET Scans Superior at Predicting Cognitive Decline in Patients than Commonly Used Imaging Techniques

By MedImaging International staff writers
Posted on 10 Aug 2023
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Image: Tau imaging with 18F-Flortaucipir PET in Alzheimer’s disease (Photo courtesy of UNIGE)
Image: Tau imaging with 18F-Flortaucipir PET in Alzheimer’s disease (Photo courtesy of UNIGE)

Alzheimer's disease, a common neurodegenerative disorder, results in a gradual deterioration of memory and autonomy. This condition is characterized by the buildup of neurotoxic proteins, specifically amyloid plaques and tau tangles, within the brain. Given the silent progression of these pathological changes over decades, early diagnosis is vital to initiate interventions as soon as feasible in the disease's course. Now, researchers have demonstrated that tau PET, an innovative imaging method for visualizing the tau protein, can predict cognitive decline in patients with superior accuracy compared to conventional imaging techniques. These findings support the rapid integration of tau PET into clinical practice for providing early and individualized interventions for patients.

Positron emission tomography (PET), a key diagnostic tool for Alzheimer's disease, employs injected tracers to visualize specific brain pathologies. While amyloid plaques may not invariably correlate with cognitive or memory impairment, the presence of tau aligns closely with clinical symptoms and significantly influences whether a patient remains stable or deteriorates rapidly. Visualizing tau using imaging techniques has posed challenges due to its intricate structure and lower concentration. Flortaucipir, a radiotracer approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2020, binds with the tau protein. This tracer facilitates the detection of tau accumulation and its spatial distribution in the brain, enabling precise evaluation of its role in the clinical manifestation of the disease.

Scientists from the University of Geneva (UNIGE, Geneva, Switzerland) and the Geneva University Hospitals (HUG, Geneva, Switzerland) embarked on a study to determine which imaging technique—amyloid PET, glucose metabolism PET, or tau PET—best predicted future cognitive decline in Alzheimer's disease. The study enrolled around 90 participants from the HUG Memory Centre. The study revealed that while all PET measures correlated with the presence of cognitive symptoms, validating their role as strong indicators of Alzheimer's disease, tau PET exhibited the greatest predictive capacity for cognitive decline rates, even in individuals with minimal symptoms. These findings support incorporating tau PET into routine clinical assessments to assess individual prognosis and select the most appropriate therapeutic plan for each patient.

“This breakthrough is crucial for better management of Alzheimer’s disease. Recently, drugs targeting amyloid have shown positive results. New drugs targeting the tau protein also look promising,” said Associate Professor Valentina Garibotto who directed the research. “By detecting the pathology as early as possible, before the brain is further damaged, and thanks to new treatments, we hope to be able to make a greater impact on patients’ future and quality of life. Similarly, we are beginning to map the distribution of tau in order to understand how its location in the different regions of the brain influences symptoms.”

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