Researchers at the University of California Los Angeles have developed a brain-imaging technique that predicts cognitive decline.

Nearly 20 percent of people age 65 or older suffer from mild cognitive impairment, the phase between normal memory loss due to aging and Alzheimer’s disease.

UCLA scientists, whose brain-imaging tool has previously helped assess neurological changes associated with cognitive declines, now say that the same brain-scan technique can effectively track and predict such declines over a two-year period.

The team created a chemical marker called FDDNP that binds to both plaque and tangle deposits — the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease — which can then be viewed using a scan to essentially provide a “window into the brain.” This method allows researchers to pinpoint the accumulation of abnormal protein deposits in the brain.

For the new study, scientists performed baseline brain scans and cognitive assessments on 43 adult volunteers and then repeated them again two years later. The participants had an average age of 64, and none had dementia.

When the study began, about half of the participants had normal memory loss and the other half had mild cognitive impairment.

During the two-year follow-up, researchers found that for both groups, increases in FDDNP binding in the frontal, posterior cingulate and global areas of the brain — regions involved in decision-making, complex reasoning, memory and emotions — were consistent with a progression of cognitive decline, while higher initial baseline FDDNP binding in both subject groups was associated with declines in language and attention.

And among the subjects with mild cognitive impairment, the level of initial binding in the frontal and parietal areas of the brain provided the greatest accuracy in identifying those who developed Alzheimer’s disease two years later.

While more research is needed, study author Dr. Gary Small, UCLA’s Parlow-Solomon Professor on Aging and a professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, said in a press release, “We are finding that this may be a useful neuro-imaging marker that can detect changes early, before symptoms appear, and it may be helpful in tracking changes in the brain over time.”

Study findings were published in the February issue of the Archives of Neurology.