The Test That Could Spot Dementia 5 Years Before Symptoms

By | October 11th, 2018

Researchers have developed an artificial intelligence program that may detect Alzheimer’s through brain imaging, genetics and blood sample data.

If you could find out whether you’ll get Alzheimer’s disease years before symptoms like memory loss begin, would you want to know? What if it meant you could start making lifestyle changes that might buy you more time—or potentially help you avoid dementia altogether?

Canadian scientists said they have created an artificial intelligence program that can spot Alzheimer’s five years before symptoms set in.

Alzheimer’s is a challenging disease because once symptoms are noticeable, there are few changes a person can make that might limit the disease’s progression. But an early warning system like this A.I. program might help patients and family members make changes that could stretch out their cognitively healthy years—or at least give them time to discuss a plan for care. As long as there is no cure for Alzheimer’s and other dementias, prevention science that points to diet and exercise as modifiable risk factors is the best defense people have—and a test like this could give folks likely to develop Alzheimer’s the heads up they need to start making changes.

“At the moment, there are limited ways to treat Alzheimer’s and the best evidence we have is for prevention,” said Mallar Chakravarty, a neuroscientist at McGill University’s Department of Psychiatry. “Our A.I. methodology could have significant implications as a ‘doctor’s assistant’ that would help stream people onto the right pathway for treatment,” he said.

“For example, one could even initiate lifestyle changes that may delay the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s or even prevent it altogether,” said Chakravarty.

To design the algorithm that detects dementia, Chakravarty and his colleagues used data from MRIs, genetics and blood samples. The data was pulled from over 800 people who had normal cognition, early stages of memory impairment and Alzheimer’s disease. At this point, the team is confident in the accuracy of the algorithm—but more data from a bigger population would lead to even more accurate predictions.

“We are currently working on testing the accuracy of predictions using new data. It will help us to refine predictions and determine if we can predict even farther into the future,” says Chakravarty. With more data, the scientists would be able to better identify those in the population at greatest risk for cognitive decline leading to Alzheimer’s.

Currently, the only way for patients to get an accurate diagnosis is through testing using a PET scan or cerebrospinal fluid. Artificial intelligence could not only help identify those patients; it could also be a selection tool for participants for clinical trials. Some scientists attribute the colossal failure rate of dementia drugs to the possibility that drugs are tested on patients who already have Alzheimer’s and are advanced enough in the disease that the drugs fail to make a difference. The thinking now is that drugs should be tested on those in the early stages of the disease—but that’s a problem, considering that scientists have discovered Alzheimer’s could be decades in the making before symptoms show up.

The difficulty in finding clinical trial participants could be alleviated by a test like this one, and it could get patients who are at the greatest risk of developing dementia into clinical trials that might slow or stop the progression of the disease.

Artificial intelligence joins a plethora of other early detection tests—eye tests, blood tests, smell tests and genetic tests—that researchers are developing in order to safely and quickly evaluate who is most at risk for Alzheimer’s and who would most benefit from lifestyle prevention and clinical trial participation.

This study was published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology.

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5 thoughts on “The Test That Could Spot Dementia 5 Years Before Symptoms

  1. My mother died of Alzheimers in 2010. My Aunt (mother’s sister) died of Parkinsons before that. I am concerned that I may have much higher risk of these deseases. (My age is 72.) I don’t know if I want to be in a trial where I would be receiving a placebo. I want to know how I can have less risk of developing either of these horrible diseases!!!

  2. While I hope that ongoing research sheds new light on the cause(s) of dementia, it makes me sad that everyone is now pushing big pharma’s agenda to get people diagnosed and drugged earlier. This article mentions lifestyle changes first, which is good – any lifestyle changes that might deter dementia are the same ones that any healthy person should aspire to … but the public relation wheels of big pharma are grinding away and throwing a lot of crap at the media (I am a retired medical writer and researcher) and I abhor their “profitable” agenda to get people on these ineffective drugs sooner. Also, let’s not forget basic human nature: If we believe something is going to happen, that belief can affect our choices and could lead us closer to its eventuality. My father (vascular dementia) is in denial about his condition, and leads a much happier life than my mother (Alzheimer’s), who knows she is affected and is distressed daily about her condition. It would be very different if there was a definitive test and a confirmed treatment. Until then, it’s muddy waters and dangerous experiments.

  3. I would want to know. If I know it is coming I can plan for it whether or not there is a treatment available. Both my parents had some form of dementia.

  4. My mother died from late onset Alzheimer’s. My brother died last year from Parkinson’s and early onset Alzheimer’s. My sister has Early Onset Alzheimer’s.
    I have shown signs of the disease, the same age as my sister first showed signs, she is 14yrs older than me.
    I would love to have a test to see if these early symptoms are the illness. I did have an MRI April 2018 and nothing showed up on there and nothing else causing the symptoms. Would love to have genetic testing just so I could stop wondering, accept it and stop other people in the family and friends saying it’s all in my head because of the strong family connection to the illness. Very frustrating.
    Live in rural Missouri and have no health insurance.

  5. My mom was 83 when she died of a bacterial infection in a nursing home. In my opinion she started showing signs at 70. NOW my 57 year old younger brother has shown signs for 5 years. He was a brilliant mind with an excellent memory. But he drank, a lot. 1) does alcohol expedite the onset? 2) We all four suffer from auto immune disorders, is there a correlation?

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