SARATOGA SPRINGS — An effort to detect symptomless, early brain tumors is coming to the area.
The Brain Tumor Foundation will be offering free MRI brain scans from Tuesday through Thursday at a mobile MRI van parked at 20 Lake Ave., Saratoga Springs. Participants should try to get an appointment in advance by calling 844-BTF-Scan or going online to https://calendly.com/btf. But the foundation will accommodate walk-ins when possible. Scans are noninvasive, take eight minutes and do not involve radiation.
The scans are part of a medical trial to determine whether MRI scans should be recommended as an early cancer screening tool. If the trial shows value, brain scans could end up being as common as mammograms.
The trial will track every person who is diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor, to see whether early detection helped.
“It’s not diagnosing the tumor that’s worthwhile. It’s changing the outcome,” said Dr. Al Neugut. “Almost uniformly, gliablastomas do poorly. The truth is, it’s basically totally fatal.”
He’s hoping early detection could change that.
“Maybe, under those circumstances, you can do good enough surgery, you can cure it,” he said.
But first he has to find tiny tumors. He’s hoping to scan 1,000 to 2,000 people this year.
In the first year of the study, he scanned 1,000 people. Those who had malignant tumors are now being tracked to see how they do.
“That will be the real test,” he said.
But he has also found many other brain problems with the MRI scans, so many that he thinks they might be enough to prove that occasional brain scans are valuable for everyone. He’s found aneurysms — so many that at every scanning site, he usually must send one patient to the emergency room.
The scans have also found early Alzheimer’s and multiple schlerosis before the patient experiences symptoms.
While there are also no exceptional symptoms for early brain tumors, headaches are a sign. So Neugut gets lots of worried migraine sufferers.
“We get every headache in town,” he said. “Most of them are just having headaches.”
But when he was suffering from migraines and got a brain scan, he was startled to find that disc disease was compressing the top of his spinal column. He was admitted immediately for emergency surgery.
“Everything turned out fine, but if I had gone home, I could have ended up paralyzed. Who knows?” he said.
For every 100 scans, he usually sends two or three people to the hospital to get checked out because of what he found. In three days at a site, he usually does 100 to 125 scans.
The occasional aneurysms discovered in the scans have surprised and pleased him.
“That is unexpected — serendipitous. Maybe we’ll save some lives,” he said.
The entire study is funded by donations to the Brain Tumor Foundation. It ran the first year of the study in 2016, then ran out of money. Now the study is starting up again, kicking off in Saratoga Springs.
Gerry Napoli, of the foundation, said people should sign up even if they are not worried about cancer.
“There are symptoms, but they are so similar to other things,” she said. “I have a headache. Should I take a Tylenol or have a brain scan?”
Her agency has previously offered free brain scans unrelated to Neugut’s research.
“It’s actually something we’ve been doing for many years,” she said. “We started it in New York for the underserved.”
They scanned people who had a family history of brain cancer or were concerned for other reasons. And Neugut acknowledged that people who sign up for a scan are often not truly asymptomatic.
“This is free. And you’ve been having problems,” he said. “You’re going to be a little more inclined to show up.”
Patients won’t get their results immediately unless the technician sees a medical emergency. They must provide the name of a doctor, who will receive the results the next day and relay them to the patient.