AI programme spots Alzheimer’s years before confirmed diagnosis

Joanna Estrada
November 9, 2018

However, early diagnosis has proven to be challenging.

Research has linked the development of Alzheimer's to particular changes in certain brain regions but these can be hard to spot.

Research study co-author Jae Ho Sohn, M.D. was approached by the senior author of the study, Benjamin Franc, M.D., with interest in applying deep learning AI to find metabolic changes in the brain that are predictors of Alzheimer's disease.

A team from the University of California, Berkeley conducted a study to look at how artificial intelligence can predict Alzheimer's.

To make the process easier, researchers made a decision to allow artificial intelligence in the game - they trained a deep learning algorithm on an imaging technology called 18-F-fluorodeoxyglucose positron emission tomography (FDG-PET).

"Deep learning" AI involves a computer programme acquiring knowledge by example, in much the same way as humans do. The PET scans can then measure the FDG uptake in the brain cells, which is an indicator of metabolic activity.

Alzheimer's is a progressive disease that destroys memory and other important mental functions.

Specifically, the new system's machine learning system was able to learn patterns in almost 2,000 brain scans taken of 1,000 patients. Researchers trained the deep learning algorithm on 90 percent of the dataset and then tested it on the remaining 10 percent of the dataset.

Through deep learning, the Alzheimer's algorithm was able to teach itself to recognise metabolic patterns in brain scans that indicated disease.

Most people have only four to eight years left to live by the time they are diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. The pilot study was using 40 PET scans from 40 patients whose scans the algorithm had not encountered before.

Diagnosing Alzheimer's is no easy task and, so far, research has only managed to link the disease process to metabolism changes shown by glucose uptake in certain regions of the brain but even knowing this, the changes are, more often than not, hard to recognize. There are over 1.5 million cases of Alzheimer's per year in Nigeria.

"We're very excited by the algorithm's performance".

Dr Carol Routledge, from Alzheimer's Research UK, said: "The diseases that cause dementia begin in the brain up to 20 years before any symptoms start to show, presenting a vital window of opportunity for us to intervene before widespread damage occurs".

"If FDG-PET with AI can predict Alzheimer's disease this early, beta-amyloid plaque and tau protein PET imaging can possibly add another dimension of important predictive power", he added, in the paper detailed in the journal Radiology.

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