Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis say they have found another way to detect Alzheimer’s disease early.

Two methods of early detection of Alzheimer’s are moving closer to being approved for clinical use. One requires an injection, and the other, a lumbar puncture or spinal tap. Washington University researchers say they have shown that brain scans could be just as effective and less invasive.

Associate Professor Beau Ances says in fact it involves a resting state functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan, which is a type of MRI scans that allow a person to just sit back and relax.

“All we’re doing is asking the individual to lie quietly, keep their eyes open and just be naturally thinking there and we can see functional connections within the brain.”

The scan tracks the rise and fall of blood flow in different regions as patients rest in the scanner. The resting data can be used to assess connections between regions of the brain to look for signs of Alzheimer’s.

Ances says fact that the scan allows an individual to be relaxed is significant.

“If you have someone that is, say, significantly more impared, it would be hard for them to do a functional task because they may get a little bit worked up, but as long as they can just it quietly in the scanner and they don’t move a lot, we can see similar kinds of functional networks without them doing any tasks.”

He says catching Alzheimer’s early can allow treatment to slow its advance.

“We may be able to stave off the progression for a number of years and that would have a huge economic benefit to society, as well as help these individuals in treatment.”

Ances says it will be some time before the method could be used in practice, but he thinks it will become the preferred option for patients.

“If you ask people what would you like to have … unless you have a pacemaker, certain kinds of metal or if you’re claustrophobic, it’s pretty easy to do.”

The findings have been published in JAMA neurology.