Scientist discovers new way of diagnosing early onset dementia

A scientists whose husband died from a rare form of early onset dementia has discovered a new method of diagnosing the illness – offering hope of earlier treatment.

Helen Beaumont was inspired by the death of her husband Clive, who was struck down with frontotemporal dementia (FTD) at the age of 45, and died six years later in 1999.

She set up a charity called Young Dementia UK, wrote a book which has made the NHS’ recommended reading list for dementia and enrolled at Manchester University to carry out her PhD.

FTD is an uncommon type of dementia, and accounts for a fifth of cases of early onset dementia.

Ms Beaumont’s research focussed on using MR (magnetic resonance) scans to look for signs of the disease.

She was able to show it’s possible to identify the condition by examining the amount and location of fluid in the brain.

‘Diagnosing FTD is currently a process of elimination,’ she said.

‘The symptoms such as personality changes or difficulties in performing tasks at work can be attributed to a number of physical and mental conditions so doctors run tests to rule each of these out.

‘What I wanted to do is use MR scans to detect differences in the brains of people with FTD so diagnosis is speedier and patients and their families can be helped sooner.’

Ms Beaumont scanned 17 people with FTD and 18 who were tested to ensure they didn’t have dementia.

She reconfigured the MR scanner to take images of the movement of blood and fluid around the brain – known as perfusion and diffusion.

People’s brains vary in the way they look and so it’s difficult to do any sort of comparisons using just the raw images from the MR scan.

As a result Ms Beaumont had to ‘normalise’ the images – a process of distorting them until they are all the same shape.

FTD affects the frontal and temporal lobes, located at the front and sides of the brain.

If the image is thought of as a map, normalising it makes the same point in every brain have the same ‘coordinates’.

Once she had done this, Ms Beaumont could do statistical tests to see if there were differences in the images between the dementia patients and the people without the disease.

When the 35 images were normalised and analysed it was the fluid which stood out among the FTD group.

Ms Beaumont, who lives in Manchester, said: ‘It may be as brain cells die because of the disease process the spaces left fill up with cerebrospinal fluid (CSF).

‘As CSF has a huge signal compared with normal brain tissue this would explain why these regions show up so much more clearly in the scans.’

The current results are for patients with clear signs of FTD but Ms Beaumont is now looking for funding so she can test her technique on potential early sufferers.

She said: ‘There were signs there was something wrong with Clive at an early stage but it took four years to achieve a diagnosis.

‘When people’s personality changes, the first person they are referred to is a psychiatrist.

‘Even once you look for physical reasons the symptoms can also be due to a brain tumour or thyroid deficiency.

‘If we can establish benchmarks which show that FTD is killing brain cells then the uncertainty and wasted time for patients and their families will be much reduced.’