Some incredible breakthrough’s in regards to the detection and prevention of Alzheimer’s have been announced this Alzheimer’s Awareness month. The most notable being that it appears that Artificial Intelligence can identify Alzheimer’s disease 10 years before doctors can discover the symptoms. The breakthrough was made by Marianna La Rocca, of the University of Bari in Italy.
Marianna La Rocca and her colleagues developed an algorithm that can spot structural changes in the brain that are caused by the disease a decade before the signs become apparent.To do this, they trained the Artificial Intelligence (AI) by feeding in 67 MRI scans – 38 from Alzheimer’s patients and 29 healthy patients – then asked it to analyse the neuronal connectivity to form an algorithm. Following the training, the AI was then asked to process brains from 148 subjects – 52 were healthy, 48 had Alzheimer’s disease and 48 had mild cognitive impairment (MCI) but were known to have developed Alzheimer’s disease two and a half to nine years later.
The AI algorithm could figure out which brains were healthy and which were not with 86 per cent accuracy. Crucially, it could also tell the difference between healthy brains and those with MCI with an accuracy of 84 per cent. The researchers were limited by the scans available from the database, so they weren’t able to test whether the algorithm could predict the onset of disease even earlier.
Why is this exciting?
Currently detecting those at high risk of developing Alzheimer’s involves cerebrospinal fluid analyses and brain imaging using radioactive tracers that can tell us to what extent the brain is covered with plaque and tangles. These methods are very invasive, expensive and only available at highly specialised centers.
What is good is that this new technique can distinguish with similar accuracy between brains that are normal and brains of people with MCI who will go on to develop Alzheimer’s disease in about a decade – but using a simpler, cheaper and non-invasive techniques.
There is also work being done to see if blood tests that look for the biomarkers of Alzheimer’s could be used, but currently there has not been much success. However this would be an even cheaper and simpler technique.
Why is it important to get an early diagnosis?
The race is on to diagnose the disease as early as possible. Although there is no cure, drugs in development are likely to work better the earlier they are given. An early diagnosis can also allow people to start making lifestyle changes to help slow the progression of the disease.
Patrick Hof at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York is intrigued by the new test. He says that a method that might predict the disease a decade before it is fully expressed would be “incredibly valuable” should preventative therapeutics emerge.
La Rocca says her team now intends to extend the technique to help with the early diagnosis of other neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. “It’s a method that is very versatile,” she says.