Digital devices and artificial intelligence partner to measure early brain changes | Alzheimer's Prevention Registry

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October 20, 2021

Digital devices and artificial intelligence partner to measure early brain changes

By Alzheimer's Prevention Bulletin


One day data from your smartphone might predict the beginning of memory and thinking problems. Today’s smartphones and wearable technologies (think Apple watch or Fitbit) track heart rate, blood oxygen and sleep patterns. These measurements collected with electronic devices are called digital biomarkers. They are just the beginning of a future where digital technology records behaviors to identify subtle physical changes.

Rhoda Au, PhD, Professor of anatomy and neurobiology, neurology and epidemiology at the Boston University Schools of Medicine and Public Health, focuses her work on digital biomarkers. “We have the opportunity to redefine digital biomarkers to be so much more than single measurements in time,” she said. “We can use a combination of several devices or applications to create a flow of dynamic data to form a very accurate assessment of a person’s health.”

Dr. Au shared an example to help us understand this new concept of digital biomarkers. She explained that when a person first comes to her with memory concerns, she asks both the patient and family about symptoms. The patient might recount how they got lost going to a familiar place or forgot to turn the stove off. Family members might share a different list of symptoms. Ultimately a pattern emerges to help form a diagnosis.

With digital biomarkers, even more data could be collected from many sources including smartphones, computers and sensors embedded in the car or home. Then artificial intelligence (AI) could analyze this multidimensional input to help a doctor better diagnose memory problems. This technique can be extremely helpful in Alzheimer’s prevention trials where participants do not yet have memory and thinking problems. Over time the AI analysis could show positive or negative changes in cognitive behavior.

Digital biomarkers are just beginning to appear in clinical research. Pharmaceutical companies are exploring digital devices to record a variety of biomarkers. Biogen recently launched the Intuition Study to develop digital biomarkers of cognitive health (available on iPhones). 

A key player in the success of digital biomarkers is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Both the individual biomarkers and the devices to collect them will require FDA approval for use in clinical trials. Work began in this regard when the FDA granted Altoida a breakthrough designation that includes priority reviews as they develop a device for the prediction of Alzheimer’s disease.

“We can use digital biomarker technology to optimize brain health by addressing small changes as they occur,” said Dr. Au. “This could help us minimize mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease in the future.”

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