How Can Mobile Phone Apps Help with the Early Detection of Alzheimer’s?

How Can Mobile Phone Apps Help with the Early Detection of Alzheimer’s?
(Michael Kappeler/dpa via AP)
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Mobile phones and wearable devices like Apple Watches and Fitbits are already helping people track their daily steps, heart rate, calories burned and more. Now, data scientists and Alzheimer’s researchers are looking at ways to turn these devices from simple trackers of information into something more: a way to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease.

Diagnosis is the first step in treating any disease – from the common cold to diabetes and heart disease to cancer – but this has been a challenge for Alzheimer’s disease. To diagnose Alzheimer’s, physicians observe patients, test their memory and cognitive functions, and get input about changes in their abilities and behaviors from people who know them. Until recently, medical tests could only rule out other causes for dementia symptoms, not pinpoint an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

This is changing thanks to cutting-edge research into Alzheimer’s biomarkers. Short for “biological markers,” biomarkers diagnose and track all types of health conditions. For example, to diagnose HIV, physicians order a blood test that detects antibodies to the virus. To track how well HIV treatment is working, another biomarker blood test shows actual levels of the virus in the blood.

Today, biomarker tests for Alzheimer’s diagnosis currently exist. They include PET imaging scans of the brain, spinal taps and even a blood test to predict the amount of amyloid plaque in the brain—a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. But these tests can be costly and invasive. Anyone who has had a brain scan or spinal tap would probably tell you they’d prefer an easier way.

That may soon be a reality for Alzheimer’s patients. Data scientists and medical researchers are findings new ways to use digital technology to monitor subtle behavioral changes that can diagnose Alzheimer’s, sometimes even before symptoms are visible to the naked eye.

Advancements in data collection, storage, and analysis contribute to early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. Mobile phones and wearable devices can monitor early, very subtle behavior changes that are usually missed in early Alzheimer’s disease. These signs include changes in a patient’s gait and balance, how they use written language, and changes in speech patterns.

In order to be useful for diagnosis, researchers need to collect and analyze enough data to determine the difference between normal age-related changes and warning signs for the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. New advances in technology are making this possible. Cloud computing permits scientists to store larger sets of data, and machine learning and artificial intelligence are being used to analyze data to find meaningful patterns.

What once sounded like science fiction is now a reality. Here are just a few examples of the exciting digital research going on right now.

California-based digital health company Neurotrack has developed a comprehensive digital assessment tool for cognitive health in aging individuals. The assessment is completed by patients on smartphones, tablets, or computers either at home or in a doctor’s office. By using digital equipment, the tool collects a range of data about physical changes in patients that may help distinguish between normal function, mild cognitive impairment, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Swiss-based brain health technology company, Altoida, also has a smartphone and tablet-based assessment to assist with diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or Alzheimer’s dementia. The company recently received FDA breakthrough designation for the next generation of this test, called the Neuro Motor Index (NMI), which adds artificial intelligence to further analyze the data collected. Altoida believes the NMI test will be able to predict which MCI patients will develop Alzheimer’s within a year.

We are at an exciting moment in the development of diagnostics for Alzheimer’s disease. The development of accurate diagnostic tools brings us one step closer to therapies that will prevent or delay age-related diseases.

Howard Fillit, M.D. is the Founding Executive Director and Chief Science Officer of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation (ADDF).

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