Using a common type of brain scan, researchers programmed a machine-learning algorithm to diagnose early-stage Alzheimer's disease about six years before a clinical diagnosis is made potentially giving doctors a chance to intervene with treatment.
No cure exists for Alzheimer's disease, but promising drugs have emerged in recent years that can help stem the condition's progression. However, these treatments must be administered early in the course of the disease to do any good. This race against the clock has inspired scientists to search for ways to diagnose the condition earlier.
"One of the difficulties with Alzheimer's disease is that by the time all the clinical symptoms manifest and we can make a definitive diagnosis, too many neurons have died, making it essentially irreversible," says Jae Ho Sohn, MD, MS, a resident in the Department of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging at UC San Francisco.
In a recent study, published in Radiology, Sohn combined neuroimaging with machine learning to try to predict whether or not a patient would develop Alzheimer's disease when they first presented with a memory impairment the best time to intervene.
Positron emission tomography
Positron emission tomography (PET) scans, which measure the levels of specific molecules, like glucose, in the brain, have been investigated as one tool to help diagnose Alzheimer's disease before the symptoms become severe. Glucose is the primary source of fuel for brain cells, and the more active a cell is, the more glucose it uses. As brain cells become diseased and die, they use less and, eventually, no glucose.
Other types of PET scans look for proteins related explicitly to Alzheimer's disease, but glucose PET scans are much more common and cheaper, especially in smaller health care facilities and developing countries, because they're also used for cancer staging.
Radiologists have used these scans to try to detect Alzheimer's by looking for reduced glucose levels across the brain, especially in the frontal and parietal lobes of the brain. However, because the disease is a slowly progressive disorder, the changes in glucose are very subtle and so difficult to spot with the naked eye.
If the algorithm can withstand these tests, Sohn thinks it could be employed when a neurologist sees a patient at a memory clinic as a predictive and diagnostic tool for Alzheimer's disease, helping to get the patient the treatments they need sooner.