DaTscan is a tool used to confirm the diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. It is a specific type of single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) imaging technique that helps visualize dopamine transporter levels in the brain.
In Parkinson’s, there is a steady loss of dopamine transporters in the brain. Dopamine transporters (DaT) mediates the flow of the neurotransmitter dopamine between nerve cells. The loss of DaT disrupts the communication between nerve cells and the transport of information from the brain to the muscles causing the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Evaluating DaT levels using Datscan can help provide a clearer picture of the brain’s functional health.
A radioactive agent is injected into the patient’s bloodstream and is tracked using SPECT — a noninvasive scanner that uses radiation detectors to image the cells that take up the agent and emit radioactivity. DaTscan specifically marks the brain cells that carry the dopamine transporters. The higher the number of healthy cells having the transporter protein is, the brighter the images are. In this way, the intensity of the brain images determines the health of the brain cells.
In patients with Parkinson’s disease, a distinct intensity pattern can be noted in the brain region that is deeply affected by degeneration, namely the basal ganglia that controls movement.
Who is DaTscan for?
DaTscan is not necessary for every Parkinson’s patient. For most, the distinct clinical symptoms such as slowness of movement, tremors, and stiffness are sufficient to reach a diagnosis, and the information generated through the scan may not be new and will not alter their treatment plans.
However, in patients with unclear symptoms that overlap with other neurological conditions and for those who do not respond to treatment, DaTscan can be necessary to reach a diagnosis.
What to expect during a DaTscan
Before the DaTscan, it is essential to discuss the patient’s medical history with the doctor. For instance, some medications may interfere with the imaging and may need to be discontinued.
The radioactive agent that is injected into the patient’s bloodstream before the imaging takes some time to reach the striatum region of the brain where cells carrying DaT are usually found. After injection, the patient may need to wait for three to six hours before receiving the SPECT scan to visualize DaT distribution in the brain. The scan itself can take 45 minutes to an hour.
The radiologist will then send the brain scans to the neurologist who will explain the results to the patient.
Exposure to radioactivity is minimal in a DaTscan. The common side effects include headaches, dizziness, dry mouth, nausea, and upset stomach.
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