Artificial Intelligence Can Detect Alzheimer’s a Decade Before Symptoms Surface

As we continue to learn about the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, it’s clear that early intervention is critical. Considering many experts believe that Alzheimer’s begins to develop 20+ years before symptoms become apparent, we need to ask ourselves — how can we properly diagnose this degenerative disease?

What once flooded our TV screens, as Hollywood depicted our interaction with artificial intelligence (AI), is now a real-world intelligence with applications in modern medicine.

Could AI detect changes in our brain‚ leading to early, more effective treatment options?

Researchers Use AI to Determine Early Warning Signs of Alzheimer’s

As researchers race to find a cure, some are focusing on blood samples, while others study cerebropsinal fluid. With all hands on deck, this research continues to be a global effort. This week, a group of researchers from the University of Bari, in Italy, are making headlines based on their unique algorithm.

Based on this algorithm, they believe that it will become possible to spot tiny structural changes in the brain, a decade before symptoms develop. How did they do this? Here are some of main points of this recent study:

  • After exposing their AI to 67 MRI scans, 38 of which showcased Alzheimer’s patients and 29 which were healthy controls, it was trained to identify levels of impairment.
  • In order to test their algorithm, they then had the AI process brain scans from 148 subjects. Once again, 48 of these scans showcased Alzheimer’s patients, while 48 scans were of people who suffered from mild cognitive impairment — but later went on to develop Alzheimer’s.
  • AI was then able to diagnose Alzheimer’s 86 percent of the time. What’s even more exciting, is that the AI was able to identify mild cognitive impairment 84 percent of the time, making it a potentially effective diagnostic tool.
  • Restricted to the scans found in USC LA’s database, it’s believed that with further development and an increased number of samples, this algorithm could become even more accurate and reliable. This could result in a non-invasive detection system, allowing for a much earlier diagnosis.

This Isn’t the First Time AI Has Been Associated with Dementia Research

Over the past couple of years, research has continued to develop alongside advances in technology. Machine learning has shown to be particularly useful, as computer programs learn to identify changes in the brain, relaying information based on the provided data.

Pairing unique MRI techniques with machine learning, allows researchers to measure tissue absorption rate, blood throughout the brain, and perfusion, in order to detect early warning signs of dementia.

Currently, with standard diagnostic MRI techniques, researchers are able to detect advanced changes in the brain. Although MRI scans can determine atrophy of the hippocampus, at this point, the brain tissue is already gone — there isn’t a way to restore that tissue. In that sense, it would be more helpful to diagnose Alzheimer’s well in advance.

Within one study, published in Radiology, researchers focused on arterial spin labeling (ASL) imaging. This technique is able to show how much blood is being delivered to various areas within the brain. Based on machine learning, the program can then recognize key patterns relating to cognitive impairment.

Using this system, the program was able to distinguish between patients with Alzheimer’s disease, subjective cognitive decline, and mild cognitive impairment. Using classifiers, researchers were then able to predict a diagnosis or possible progression with 82 to 90 percent accuracy.

The point here is, options such as ASL MRI screening can help identify changes in the brain, which appear during the earliest stages. It is during this time, that a window of opportunity may exist in terms of intervention. In turn, the rate of progression could be reduced, allowing for a more optimal prognosis.

The Earlier, the Better

In the absence of a cure, researchers continue to focus on risk reduction and early intervention. In order to so, a timely diagnosis needs to be made. As mentioned, by the time serious symptoms evolve, the patient’s brain tissue has already been damaged. Some of the benefits associated with early diagnosis include:

  • More time for the patient and their loved ones to plan ahead. By accessing all of the possible options, an individual can enhance their quality of life, utilizing various therapies.
  • Delayed institutionalization, based on improved cognition, reductions in depression, and improvements in caregiver mood. When implemented early, these interventions are believed to be more effective.
  • Risk prevention, reducing the possibility of accidents and complications. When dementia goes undetected, there’s a great risk that an individual may suffer from errors in medication, suffer from an automobile accident, experience financial difficulties, and more.

By 2050, it is believed that 135 million people will live with dementia worldwide. This is why it’s critical that we focus on preventative measures, reducing the global burden — but how?

In order to protect yourself, it’s important to make key lifestyle changes as soon as possible. A great example is smoking — which increases your risk of developing dementia by 45 percent. For anyone who smokes, you know it’s easier said than done, but it’s certainly not impossible.

Another is maintaining a healthy weight, as obesity and diabetes have both been linked to dementia. As we have discussed time and time again, there is a direct link between your heart and your brain. When you live a ‘heart-healthy’ lifestyle, you also protect your brain. That means eating a balanced, clean diet; exercising on a regular basis; and managing stress levels.

On that note, if you believe you’re suffering from early warning signs, or are concerned about a loved one, BrainTest can guide you towards positive action. Check out the science behind this tool, better understanding the importance of an early diagnosis.

Krista Hillis has a B.A.Sc degree, specializing in neuroscience and psychology. She is actively involved in the mental health and caregiving community, aiming to help others. Krista is also passionate about nutrition and the ways in which lifestyle choices affect and influence the human brain.

Comments (2)
  1. Erin Dyer

    My maternal grandmother, mother and her 2 sisters(my aunts) each experienced dementia in their 70s but was most pronounced in their 80s.
    I do not smoke nor drink alcohol. I have my Masters Degree plus 60+ post Masters credits.
    A few years ago, I had cognitive testing done by a psychologist to establish a baseline. As a result of a fall, I had a scan of my head. I explained to the ER doctor my family history of dementia. We reviewed the scan together and he indicated that he did not see anything to suggest early dementia signs. The scan was later examined by the Radiologist. No concerns were noted.
    I am a 64 year old Speech/Language Pathologist. I
    am post-menopausal although I have hot flashes at night. I also experience some problems with word finding and name recall.
    I am interested in reading more research dealing with AI as a means of identifying brain changes related to dementia.

  2. Sandra Bartos

    My mother had Dementia ,she smoked.I noticed it in her late 60’s and she continued to work until70 or 71.By74 she didn’t remember our names.She passed away at 76.

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