When you think of artificial intelligence, often called AI, you probably think of robots, science-fiction movies or maybe even aliens. But AI is being studied as a tool to predict Alzheimer’s several years before the disease’s symptoms become obvious to patients, loved ones, or even their doctors.
Can Artificial Intelligence Predict Alzheimer’s?
When researchers used a deep learning algorithm, they were able to accurately predict Alzheimer’s disease more than six years before a doctor’s diagnosis, according to recent data published in the medical journal, Radiology. Deep learning is a technique that teaches a computer to learn naturally, like humans. In the new study, computer models learned to look at changes and structures in the brain that indicate the likelihood of Alzheimer’s in its earliest stages.
Early diagnosis of Alzheimer's can improve the expected outcome of those living with the disease because it allows for the implementation of treatments and interventions shown to be most effective in the early stages of the disease. Using AI means this may occur before patients or caregivers spot the early symptoms of Alzheimer's, including memory loss and trouble planning and solving problems. However, identifying cognitive impairment years before significant changes in the brain occur has been challenging because physicians have very few tools to catch the disease in its earliest stages.
Now artificial intelligence is shining a new, promising light on the ability to detect changes in the brain that indicate Alzheimer’s disease. “Differences in the brain are very subtle and diffuse,” said the co-author of the study, Jae Ho Sohn, M.D., of the University of California in San Francisco. “People are good at finding specific biomarkers of disease, but metabolic changes represent a more global and subtle process.”
How is AI Changing Alzheimer’s Research?
The scientists used PET scan imaging to train the deep learning algorithm to teach itself patterns associated with Alzheimer's disease. AI accurately detected the disease 100 percent of the time in every person who developed Alzheimer’s. It did so an average of more than six years prior to diagnosis.
While the use of artificial intelligence in the fight against Alzheimer’s looks to be promising, more research is needed. This test was small, involving 1,000 people. Researchers caution that AI’s role in detecting brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease needs to be studied further.
However, the algorithm does hold promise. When used with other tests currently used to make a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, it may lead to an early intervention that can reduce the severity of symptoms or slow down the disease’s progression.
“If we diagnose Alzheimer's disease when all the symptoms have manifested, the brain volume loss is so significant that it's too late to intervene," wrote the researchers. "If we can detect it earlier, that's an opportunity to potentially find better ways to slow down or even halt the disease process.”
Technology’s Role in Treating Alzheimer’s
Artificial intelligence isn’t the only technological tool experts are using to diagnose and manage Alzheimer’s disease.
There are many technologies to improve quality of life for seniors that are being used by caregivers and health care experts (or looked to as possible aids in the future). It can relieve the stress, fear and anxiety experienced by those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and their loved ones. Some examples include:
Safety. Video monitoring provides ongoing surveillance. This can prevent injuries and unintended exits from the home. It may also alleviate the stress of worrying a loved one has fallen or injured themselves and is unable to call for help.
Other popular safety devices relied on by families affected by Alzheimer’s disease include medication organizers, wearable ID devices, bed occupancy sensors, door security bars, touchpad key locks, and window sensors.
Behavioral management. Research has shown non-pharmacological treatments are beneficial to treat and manage agitation and other difficult behaviors experienced by those with Alzheimer’s disease. A 2013 study of people with dementia found that music, solar effect projectors and aroma diffusers improved the attention span of those with cognitive impairment symptoms. They also decreased restlessness, wandering and impulsiveness.
These therapies were helpful for caregivers, too. They reported satisfaction with the technology experiences because of reduced anxiety and agitation in those they care for.
Alleviating symptoms. Hands free technology, like Google Glass, may soon help those with mild to moderate forms of the disease. Using Google’s GPS system, wearing a pair of glasses equipped with Google Glass can prompt a person on where he or she wants to go and how to get there. This can make trips to the doctor, grocery store or church less fearful for both the person with Alzheimer’s and their support system. It can also allow caregivers or family members to track a wearer’s location to preserve independence and mobility.
Google Glass may also help seniors connect faces with names and relationships. They’ll be able to know who is standing in front of them if they’re unable to recognize the face. That peace of mind also reduces stress and agitation for those with mild cognitive impairment.
Finding the Right Technology
Every technological tool has advantages and disadvantages. Some may be too expensive or seem overwhelming to a senior user. Just try to be patient. It may take time to test out a variety of tools before finding the right technology for your loved one. Talking to a health care provider or geriatric specialist who deals with Alzheimer’s patients can help identify what technology might be best for the needs of you and your loved one.
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