Like most doctors researching Alzheimer's Disease Dr. Jerome Goldstein uses cognitive tests to help track the effectiveness of experimental drugs.
But he's also been employing a new technology that could soon have a dramatic impact on the way doctors both treat and research the disease.
"It's a whole different perspective to test someone cognitively, ask someone what day it is, or what week or who's the president, but it's a whole different issue to see what's happening in the brain," he said.
To make that possible, a Pennsylvania company developed a fluorescent dye that binds to amyloid proteins -- tangles of which are known as plaques and are associated with Alzheimer's.
Now using PET scans, researchers are able to see those plaques building up in the brain.
Dr. Michael Weiner is a researcher at UCSF and principle investigator of the Alzheimer's Disease Neuroimaging Initiative. It's a public-private partnership funded by the National Institute on Aging and the pharmaceutical industry
"Up until now, we've been unable to diagnose with certainty whether or not somebody has Alzheimer's disease unless we have an autopsy," he said.
He says a method of early diagnosis could be key to preventing the disease. That's because Alzheimer's can take up to 20 years to develop.
And until now, researchers have had to wait until they could perform autopsies to confirm a patient's diagnosis and learn what a drug was really doing inside a patient's brain.
"It's going to make us able to detect the presence of amyloid that is the presence of Alzheimer's in people at a very early stage, so they can be studied with various treatments," Weiner said.
Goldstein points to several promising drugs currently in development, but cautions that Alzheimer's is so complicated that it may ultimately take a combination of medications to treat it.
Still, he believes the new imaging technique, which he's been using as part of a nationwide study, will help speed up results from other clinical trials.
"There's hope for the future. We're looking for the cure. This is not the complete answer, but it is a light into the future, which is extremely important," Weiner said.
The manufacturer, Avid Radiopharmaceuticals plans to apply for FDA approval for the technology later this year. Two other companies, G.E. and Bayer are also working on competing imaging systems.
Written and produced by Tim Didion