New developments in instrumentation, radiochemistry, and data analysis, particularly the introduction of 99M TC-labeled brain-retained tracers for perfusion studies, have opened up a new era of single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT). In this review critical methodological issues relating to the SPECT instrument, the radioactive tracers, the scanning procedure, the data analysis and interpretation of data, and subject selection are discussed together with the changes in regional cerebral blood flow (rCBF) observed in normal aging. An overview is given of the topography and the pathophysiological and diagnostic significance of focal rCBF deficits in Alzheimer's disease and in other dementia disorders, in which SPECT is capable of early or preclinical disease detection. In Alzheimer's disease, the diagnostic sensitivity and specificity of focal rCBF deficits measured with SPECT and brain-retained tracers are very high, in particular when combined with medial temporal lobe atrophy on CT. Together with neuropsychological testing, SPECT serves to map the topography of brain dysfunction. Thus, in the clinical setting, SPECT provides information that is supplemental to that obtained in other studies. Future applications include neuroreceptor studies and treatment studies, in which SPECT may serve as a diagnostic aid in the selection of patients and as a potential mean for monitoring treatment effects. Although positron emission tomography is the best characterized tool for addressing some of these clinical and research issues in dementia, only the less expensive and technically simpler SPECT technique will have the potential of being available as a screening diagnostic instrument in the clinical setting. It is concluded that, properly approached, functional brain imaging with SPECT represents an important tool in the diagnosis, management, and research of dementia disorders.