Can Dementia Be Seen on a Brain Scan?

Brain Imaging for Dementia

Do you find your friends or family members remember pieces of your history better than you do? Do you often walk into a room only to forget why? Do you notice a loved one having cognitive problems or acting strangely? Do you wish you could take a peek inside your head to see what’s happening in your brain to make you so forgetful? Would you like to know if you’re headed for dementia? You can with functional brain imaging.

One diagnostic tool that can be extremely useful in helping to understand signs of memory and cognitive issues better is a brain SPECT scan.  Examining your brain’s function with this type of imaging can help identify cognitive problems long before they develop into dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

More than a decade ago, published research recognized brain SPECT imaging could help diagnose Alzheimer’s disease more precisely. Click To Tweet

Counter to what some people may believe, persistent issues with memory and changes in cognition are NOT normal signs of aging! Here’s what brain SPECT imaging can reveal about your brain function, and how you can use it to address early signs of dementia when interventions are more effective.


Dementia is the general term given for a decline in cognitive ability that is severe enough to interfere with daily life. It is caused by abnormal changes in the brain. Early signs of dementia may include:

Over time, dementia symptoms can grow severe enough to impair a person’s ability to function independently in the world. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, but there are other less common forms as well.

According to recent data, dementia is estimated to affect more than 7 million people ages 65 or older in the U.S. Experts believe that more than 9 million Americans may have dementia by 2030, and nearly 12 million might be affected by it by 2040, according to the same research findings.

Of those dementia cases, roughly 60-80% are Alzheimer’s disease. Currently, it’s estimated that 6.5 million people in the U.S. are currently living with Alzheimer’s.

People with dementia die prematurely. People with dementia die prematurely. It is the 7th leading cause of death in the U.S. and around the world. A recent meta-analysis study revealed that after diagnosis, the mean survival time for people with Alzheimer’s was 5.8 years. For people with other forms of dementia, survival times were even less.

There’s good reason to take early signs of dementia seriously.


If you have persistent memory problems and/or other cognitive issues, there are several ways a doctor may choose to look at your brain:

  • Structural brain scans
  • Functional brain scans
  • Amyloid imaging agents

Structural Brain Scans

Physicians will routinely either order an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or CT (computerized axial tomography) brain scan. These imaging tools are designed to picture the brain’s structure (anatomy).

In many cases, an MRI brain scan or brain CT scan will come back normal or may indicate “mild atrophy consistent with aging.” This does not provide much information about dementia. On the other hand, either scan can show if there has been a stroke or a tumor.

With Alzheimer’s disease, structural changes, such as brain shrinkage, usually occur later in its development when lifestyle interventions are less effective.

Whether it is Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, an MRI or CT scan is not going to reveal early functional changes. Functional changes are the first indications that dementia may be developing.

Functional Brain Scans

Functional brain-imaging studies can be more useful precisely because they reveal changes in the way the brain functions. With dementia, functional issues nearly always occur before structural ones.

More importantly, functional imaging can show evidence of a disease process years or even decades before people experience any symptoms. This allows time for a number of interventions to be implemented for better health outcomes.

Functional brain imaging tools include:

  • SPECT (single-photon emission computerized tomography) looks at blood flow and activity patterns in the brain. It shows areas of the brain with healthy activity as well as regions that are underactive or overactive. SPECT can help in the diagnosis of many different types of memory problems, including mild cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s, and other forms of dementia. It can also reveal if memory issues may be resulting from other causes, such as head trauma, infections, toxins, or depression.
  • QEEG (quantitative electroencephalogram) imaging reveals electrical activity in the brain. Specific electrical patterns are associated with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and dementia. A 2022 study concluded that QEEG is a reliable tool to differentiate MCI, Alzheimer’s, and other dementias from normal aging.
  • PET (positron emission tomography) scans measure the concentration of certain molecules in the brain. An amyloid-PET scan specifically measures the amount of abnormal amyloid buildup in the brain. This can be helpful, but it is far more expensive than SPECT or QEEG.

Amyloid Imaging Agents

Medical researchers used to think that there were two primary causal factors of Alzheimer’s disease:

  • the buildup of beta amyloid plaques
  • the formation of “tangles” within neurons caused by inflamed tau proteins

With this understanding, amyloid imaging agents for the brain have been developed. Tau imaging tools are currently in the works.

Curiously, though, all of the medications developed to clean up these two destructive proteins have failed in clinical trials. It is very likely that the treatment of Alzheimer’s may need to be more multidimensional than a one-size-fits-all solution targeting only amyloid buildup.


SPECT provides more information, which is helpful in identifying a broad range of brain health issues. Indeed, more than a decade ago, published research recognized brain SPECT imaging could help diagnose Alzheimer’s disease more precisely. Here are 3 advantages of SPECT:

1. Early detection.

Brain imaging research, including a study in Neurodegenerative Disease, indicates that changes in the brain associated with Alzheimer’s begin decades before symptoms of the disease appear. Based on the brain-imaging work at Amen Clinics, SPECT can identify patterns associated with Alzheimer’s up to 9 years prior to the onset of symptoms.

At Amen Clinics, SPECT imaging has revealed a typical brain pattern associated with Alzheimer’s disease. This pattern involves decreased activity in 3 key areas:

  • Posterior cingulate gyrus
  • Parietal lobes
  • Temporal lobes

As Alzheimer’s progresses to more advanced stages, decreases in activity develop in additional brain areas, such as the frontal lobes.

2. Showing multiple types of dementia.

Autopsy research shows that over 50% of people who died from Alzheimer’s disease also had changes in the brain associated with other forms of dementia. SPECT can help reveal multiple brain health issues that may be contributing to memory problems.

3. Revealing specific dementia patterns in the brain.

SPECT scans show the specific patterns of different types of dementia. For example, in frontotemporal dementia, which accounts for roughly 5% of dementia cases, there’s typically low blood flow in the frontal and temporal lobes.

With vascular dementia, which accounts for 10% of dementia cases, low blood flow will be evident in the areas of the brain that are affected by blood vessel damage.

These advantages make brain SPECT imaging particularly valuable for anyone who is experiencing memory issues or who has a family history of Alzheimer’s disease.


At Amen Clinics, brain SPECT imaging has played a role in identifying 11 major risk factors for memory loss, including Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. The easiest way to remember them is with the mnemonic BRIGHT MINDS, which stands for:

  • Blood Flow
  • Retirement and Aging
  • Inflammation
  • Genetics
  • Head Trauma
  • Toxins
  • Mental Health
  • Immune Health/Infections
  • Neurohormone Issues
  • Diabesity
  • Sleep Issues

The best way to keep your memory sharp, stop your brain from aging, and prevent Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia is to prevent or treat all of these risk factors. It’s never too late—or too early—to start.

Memory problems, Alzheimer’s disease, and other forms of dementia can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.


  1. excellent post!

    Comment by Douglas Morris — July 18, 2023 @ 2:42 PM

  2. Where can I find ond of your facilities that does these type of scans near me? I live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

    Comment by Linda Keaveney — July 21, 2023 @ 3:41 AM

  3. I would like to know if it is possible to have a SPECT done in Brisbane Australia

    Comment by Sandra Cumming — July 21, 2023 @ 4:03 AM

  4. Am I in the scope of your trials

    Comment by Joseph Cinitis — July 21, 2023 @ 7:17 AM

  5. I’ve believed in your work for a long time. It’s just inaccessible . I’d love this for my mom who’s been living with Alzheimer’s for 20 years diagnosed, maybe longer undiagnosed. Insurance doesn’t cover and it’s too expensive, at least for my family. Hoping it will become the norm for all of us to get access to what you’re trying to show helps!

    Comment by Susan — July 21, 2023 @ 7:25 AM

  6. How much is it to have a SPECT Scan?

    Comment by Lynne Yeaman — July 21, 2023 @ 7:45 AM

  7. Please provide more information on location options.

    Comment by Robert Rossow — July 21, 2023 @ 8:14 AM

  8. My mother passed in 2015 from ALZ complications at 90 yo, she had been diagnosed in 2008, but in retrospect she was showing symptoms for many years. As we have a small family, we didn't know of any other family member that had ALZ. My husband and us took the 23&ME DNA test, because my husband never knew his birth father or that side of the family and he was experiencing major health issues in his 60's. He and our daughter and granddaughter found out they have Celiac, which no DR was able to find HLA-DQ A1. Who knew cutting out gluten could make such a difference in ones life. My husband just turned 80. 23&Me found another gene that links to Celiac and sure enough I carry that HLA-DQ2.5 and so do the girls. I had been cheating on the gluten-free diet when I'd go out with others alone, but stuck to the gluten-free which I was doing most of the cooking at home. I have gone completely GF now and do find things like my migraines, arthritis, bowel-movements have all gotten better, albeit having gone almost 65 years eating gluten has taken it's toll. 23&me also revealed I carry an APOE gene, thankfully I didn't give it to the girls. But older sister was diagnosed at 68 yo with ALZ and at 74 is within the full throngs of it. Thank-goodness her husband (despite all his health issues has stuck by her). I do find myself thinking about things my sister would say prior to her diagnose. She said she felt like and imposter at her job, she wasn't always sure what she was doing and couldn't catch on as fast as others, mostly younger than her. she really struggled as the executor for our mothers estate and we 3 younger girls to think that was the stress that pushed her over, she quit her job and they moved to a smaller retirement type community. Sadly, I can't remember the last time she knew my name. I find myself experiencing a lot of anxiety, I don't recover well from stressful incidents and the ringing in my ears has gotten worse. I do not have DR. We are in a small rural area and live a ways from town. I hesitate to find a DR for fear insurances will drop me and why waste the money if what's coming inevitable. I'm not so much depressed, I am trying to eat a healthy diet, I am part of ALZ brainhealth Fitbit study, where the watch constantly prompts me to get up and move and traces my sleep pattern. I am concerned my 80 yo husband won't be able to handle my decline and both our daughter and granddaughter have developed multiple other autoimmune diseases and we can only hope they out live us. So why am I rambling on. Because I do believe in you program, I have Dr Amens The Ultimate Brain Box, and do try to follow the suggests for the gut/brain connection. i just wish I had been more devoted earlier and could have staved this off longer!?

    Comment by Roberta Eveland-Williams — July 21, 2023 @ 8:35 AM

  9. In 2011 I experienced a very forceful blow to the back of my head. I slowly started having neurological symptoms with fatigue, coordination, concentration, and executive functioning. I was diagnosed in 2013 and 20014 with Parkinsons. I started Carbidopa/levidopa in Sept, 2 014. I retired in June 2016. I experienced major side affects but also gained motor coordination. In the past 5 years i have more cognitive issues like anxiety and depression. When I take the medication it causes movement in my feet that i can't control. I eat well and exercise. just had a Datscan am wondering if you can use that information to assess my brain. I believe I have a traumatic brain injury not PD. I was told that the scan showed neurodegeneration. I really want to stop the medication. I have been prescribed many drugs that made me feel worse, so I only take the C/L. Due to poor phone reception correspondance needs to be through email.

    Comment by Susan Barton — July 21, 2023 @ 1:00 PM

  10. is a patient able to get a spect scan if they have claustrophobe?

    Comment by Dr.JAMES SANSONE — July 22, 2023 @ 1:14 PM

  11. Hello Robert, thank you for reaching out. At this time, Amen Clinics has 11 locations in the U.S.:

    Comment by Amen Clinics — July 25, 2023 @ 10:05 AM

  12. Hello Linda, thank you for reaching out. At this time, Amen Clinics has 11 locations ( in the U.S. and we do have one in Irving, TX:

    Comment by Amen Clinics — July 25, 2023 @ 10:06 AM

  13. Cool

    Comment by Gabriella LaPlace — July 28, 2023 @ 9:40 AM

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