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PET-MR scanner at Manchester University
One of the state-of-the-art PET-MR scanners in the DPUK network. (Image: University of Manchester)

The study involves scanning the brains of 45 volunteers on each of the PET-MR scanners and comparing the images to ensure each scanner is properly calibrated.

The sophisticated PET-MR scanners combine two types of brain imaging technique: positron emission tomography (PET) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). MRI scans show a clear image of the brain, while PET scans reveal the biological workings of the brain. Combining the two enables the physiological responses from the PET scanner to be visualised over a sharp MRI image.

The DPUK Imaging Network features eight of these PET-MR scanners, situated in hospitals and universities across the UK. Once all eight scanners are synchronised, it will allow researchers to run nationwide studies because they can guarantee that brain scans on each machine will be directly comparable to all others in the network. This will enable research on a scale previously unseen in the field of dementia.

The harmonisation study is being spearheaded by a team at University of Manchester, led by Dr Julian Matthews and Professor Karl Herholz. Dr Matthews said: 'It is really great news that we have restarted scanning once more. The last year has been especially challenging, dealing both with the implications of COVID-19 as well as enforced changes relating to radiotracer supply. So it has been particularly pleasing to see how the network of eight scanning sites has pulled together to meet and overcome these challenges.'

The harmonisation study was launched in early 2020 and was well under way when it was temporarily halted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Lockdown restrictions meant it was no longer possible for members of the public to visit the centres to have their brain scans.

Now, the study has been given the green light to invite volunteers back. Teams in Newcastle and Edinburgh have already resumed, with successful PET-MR scans of volunteers at the end of April.

Project manager Victoria Rhodes-Bradford said: 'This study has demonstrated the value of a UK-wide PET-MR imaging network, with all sites working closely together, sharing their knowledge and expertise to help achieve the study's aims.' Professor Herholz added: 'We hope that the close collaboration between all eight centres formed by this effort will build a strong base for future use of the DPUK Imaging Network in clinical research into dementia and other diseases.'

The aim of the DPUK Imaging Network is to provide researchers with the tools to detect dementia in its earliest stages before symptoms appear. This is because this window of time – known as pre-clinical dementia – is when treatment can be most effective. Brain scans reveal the inner workings of the brain and will provide dementia researchers with crucial insights into the formation, progression and potential treatments of dementia.