MRI might soon be able to predict if a patient will develop dementia up to three years before they start presenting symptoms, according to a research recently presented at the Radiological Society of North American annual meeting in Chicago.

Researchers from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the University of California San Francisco found that MRI scans had an accuracy rate of 89 percent at predicting a person’s chances of developing dementia.

Dementia is a condition that impairs memory, language skills, and basic comprehension. Patients with dementia symptoms have “differences on diffusion MRI” than those without the condition. The researchers used data from Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative to locate 10 people who had demonstrated weakened cognitive skills over the span of two years, and 10 people of the same age and gender but with resilient mental skills. They then evaluated all 20 patients’ diffusion tensor MRI scans that had been taken before that two-year period.

Their analysis showed that cognitive decline was associated with white matter damage. They then expanded their study to a new group of 61 people and narrowed the measure of “white matter integrity.” This approach helped them determine a person’s likelihood to have cognitive decline at an 89 percent rate of accuracy. When they targeted exact parts of the brain, the accuracy rate was 95 percent.

“We could tell that the individuals who went on to develop dementia have these differences on diffusion MRI, compared with scans of cognitively normal people whose memory and thinking skills remained intact,” said Cyrus A. Raji, MD, PhD, assistant professor at Washington University’s Mallinckrodt Institute of Radiology. “What we need now, before we can bring it into the clinic, is to get more control subjects and develop computerized tools that can more reliably compare individual patients’ scans to a baseline normal standard. With that, doctors might soon be able to tell people whether they are likely to have Alzheimer’s develop in the next few years.”