SNMMI Mars Shot: Neurological Disease

Neurological issues affect 20 million Americans and 1 in 6 people worldwide. A neurological condition may often be degenerative and result in some degree of disability. Such conditions and their treatments are often complex and difficult to understand by patients and their families and friends. For patients hoping to ensure quality of life and function, molecular imaging technologies are playing an important role in neuroimaging by providing a window into the living brain, aiding in earlier diagnosis and more effective and appropriate treatments¹.

More than 50 million American adults—21.8% of the country’s adult population—suffer each year from neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, psychiatric disorders such as bipolar disorder and depression, or other brain disorders such as autism. Of persons aged 85 years or older, 35.8% have moderate or severe memory impairment. One hundred million people have chronic pain, 70 million experience sleep or wakefulness problems, and 69 million have vestibular and balance disorders; altogether, these cases constitute 54% of occurrences of the top 10 neurologic diseases.

Medical researchers still lack fundamental knowledge about what causes brain conditions, how they affect the brain, and how to cure or even effectively treat them. The human brain is a vast frontier that has only just begun to be explored. This exploration is key to unlocking a new generation of treatments and restarting stalled innovation on mental and neurological illnesses.


Many mental illnesses and other brain disorders are linked to a disruption in brain circuitry. Understanding how neurotransmitters, synapses, and circuits are altered in people with brain disorders is critical to developing treatments and prevention strategies. It is anticipated that the current definitions and diagnostic approaches to neurodegenerative disorders will majorly expand the clinical use of molecular brain imaging.

Technologies such as PET and SPECT allow scientists to see brain function and measure its chemical processes, often detecting abnormal function before the structural changes resulting from brain cell death can be seen on CT or MRI. In addition to imaging technologies, novel radiopharmaceutical imaging agents (radiotracers) are being developed to aid in the detection of neurological diseases in their earliest stages.


By successfully transferring radiotracer developments and technical advancements from the research setting into clinical practice, there is the potential that brain PET radiotracers will allow early visualization of most, if not all, neurodegenerative disorders, shifting forward the time point of diagnosis and treatment and thus improving the patient’s prognosis. This shift may even advance to as early as the prodromal disease stages,
many years before the first cognitive or motor symptoms occur. PET imaging may become a standard component of clinical care, allowing examination of the underlying pathology with high sensitivity.

Using molecular imaging technologies, research is under way to understand the function of specific brain regions, locate new areas of the brain affected by neurological disorders, discover strategies to treat brain disorders, create drugs and therapies, form methods of identifying individuals at risk for brain disorders, and optimize patient care.


With the health of the brain determining the whole-body condition of patients, it is vital that research continue to probe the source of degenerative neurological conditions and the potential diagnostic procedures and treatments that may offer concrete answers. As standard procedures for neurological imaging and diagnosis progress, patients are being seen earlier in their disease course, before significant cell death has occurred, thus offering a wider array of treatment possibilities and the potential for more positive prognoses. Treating the source of the illness is more effective than applying a patch to a visible leak—the brain is a wonderful, complex, sensitive ecosystem, and the field of neurology is primed to continue leaping forward