Publish date: 25 July 2023

Research at UCLH and UCL aims to validate a rapid brain imaging (MRI) protocol for the diagnosis and monitoring of Alzheimer's disease - which would make it possible to acquire scans in just five minutes instead of 20 to 30 minutes.

The work is led by consultant neurologists Professor Nick Fox and Dr Cath Mummery and Professor of Healthcare Engineering at UCL Geoff Parker.

The development of a rapid MRI protocol would mean greater MRI scanning capacity in the NHS. This would help ensure more patients get a quick diagnosis, a more precise diagnosis, and better management of a patient’s condition.

Prof Fox will do the work with the prize money received after being awarded the Grand Prix Européen 2022 by the Fondation Recherche Alzheimer.

MRI is the current gold standard for diagnosis and monitoring of Alzheimer’s. But it is relatively time consuming – taking up to half an hour – meaning MRI capacity is limited. If a patient receives a scan, it is typically a less optimal CT scan.

In addition, new disease modifying therapies that will soon become available will increase demand for MRI even further – to ensure earlier and disease-specific diagnosis, and accurate monitoring of therapies.

For the research led by Prof Fox, a team will look at whether a rapid MRI protocol plus use of a blood-based biomarker is as effective as having a standard MRI (20 to 30 minutes long).

Patients at UCLH will have their usual scan of standard length – and will be asked if they will spend an extra 5-7 minutes in the scanner in order to be scanned according to the rapid protocol. The team will then compare the accuracy of rapid MRI vs standard MRI.

The work will be done at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, part of UCLH, and UCL – and is supported by the NIHR UCLH Biomedical Research Centre. Preliminary results that will be presented later this month suggest the rapid MRI protocol may be able to successfully replicate the diagnostic ability of the standard protocol.

Professor Fox, who is director of the Dementia Research Centre at the UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology, was recognised by the Fondation Recherche Alzheimer last year for his contribution to dementia research.

His research focuses on the early diagnosis and study of the progression of neurodegenerative dementias as well as biomarkers for testing potential treatments for Alzheimer's disease and related syndromes.

Professor Fox pioneered innovative methods for using MRI to study the progression of Alzheimer's disease and its early diagnosis. The atrophy measures he developed are now widely used in clinical trials.

He also has a long-standing interest in longitudinal clinical and imaging studies in familial dementias. This is a frame of reference in the development of large cohorts and clinical trials such as Alzheimer's Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI) and Dominant Inherited Alzheimer Network (DIAN). He has also applied these methods to pathologies related to Alzheimer's (semantic dementia and fronto-temporal dementia).

In parallel to his research activity he remains personally very active with patients, as director of a renowned specialist centre on cognitive pathologies, as well as involvement in dementia research charities.

Professor Fox said: “I was very honoured to receive this award from the Fondation Recherche Alzheimer. Brain imaging is critical to diagnosis in dementia – and yet access to MRI scanners is limited – cutting the time for a scan would mean greater access to scans that could improve the quality and speed of diagnosis.

The Fondation Recherche Alzheimer was created in 2004 by two French doctors – Professor Bruno Dubois, a neurologist specializing in Alzheimer's disease and Doctor Olivier de Ladoucette, psychiatrist and geriatrician – and is located at the heart of the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital Group.

More about dementia

A series of videos featuring Prof Fox and produced by UCLH addresses frequently asked questions about dementia. Access these videos on our YouTube page: