Researcher uses wearable devices to look for clues to early dementia and Alzheimer's

February 17, 2017
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

In 2014, more than 93,000 people in the United States died from Alzheimer's disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The complex nature of Alzheimer's makes it difficult to understand and predict, until it's too late. Boston University professor and neuropsychologist Rhoda Au is trying to change that. Through the use of wearable digital devices, Au is collecting an enormous amount of data on people over time with the hope of finding the minute physical changes that correspond with the slow mental decline of Alzheimer's.

Au, who discussed her research at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference in Boston in February 2017, says that what she really wants is to never do another Alzheimer's test in the lab again. "It's really labor-intensive to bring people [into the lab]," she says, and it doesn't give a full picture of an illness. Cognitive decline can change day-to-day or even hour-to-hour, but lab tests are just a snapshot and don't provide the important nuances. Instead of lab tests, Au wants to use to try to detect through how people live their daily lives.

It's what she calls her e-cognitive health initiative—the official title is "Precision Monitoring of Preclinical Alzheimer's Disease: Framingham Study of Cognitive Epidemiology"—and she recently received funding from private industry partners, including Pfizer, for 2,200 people to participate in the initiative over three years.

This will hopefully provide valuable information on how Alzheimer's and dementia progress. Right now, it is difficult to detect early preclinical Alzheimer's, a term for a progressing that does not yet meet the strict definition of Alzheimer's.

"The idea of preclinical Alzheimer's disease is that, for people who are destined to develop dementia due to Alzheimer's disease, in the years before they become overtly cognitively impaired, there might be subtle things that change in their daily behavior that, if we knew what to look for, would disclose who might be at risk," says David Knopman, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, who specializes in Alzheimer's disease, dementia, and cognitive impairment.

Besides her position at BU, Au is the director of neuropsychology at the Framingham Heart Study (FHS). Since 1948, the FHS has followed over 5,000 participants from Framingham, Massachusetts, throughout their lives. Volunteer participants came in for regular checkups, and, over the years, scientists saw for the first time how cardiac problems progress in populations—what role lifestyle plays in heart disease and the signs leading up to diagnosis. Since then, the FHS has widened its focus to include all chronic diseases and taken on even more participants, including the children and grandchildren of the original 5,000.

Au is now giving wearable devices to that second generation of 2,200 participants—although she doesn't know if every one of them will participate—and she has partnered with tech companies like AnthroTronix and Shimmer, an Irish-based company that creates wearables for detecting biophysical data. Over a three-year period, various wearable devices from these companies will measure everything from sleep to balance and fall risk to heart rate. Au even has smartphone apps to test cognitive ability at home. While all this data may hold vital clues to Alzheimer's and dementia, having so much information can present its own challenges.

"We always need more terabytes," says Brynna Wasserman (ENG'15), Au's research assistant at the FHS. The digital devices project is only one of many pieces to Au's research—all of which are data-heavy. The neuropsychology group at the FHS has a shared hard drive, says Wasserman. "It has 10 terabytes on it. You'd think that would be enough." It's not. Wasserman says that they are constantly asking for more data storage, a problem that will only get more challenging as the lab collects additional data from the wearable devices. And analyzing the data presents an even bigger hurdle. Right now, Au is focused on how to collect the data, and digging through the information to find the clues to cognitive decline is something she is working on. But, she wrote in an email, that is another reason to partner with private companies. "I look to the academic community to help work through computation barriers that will lead to next-generation tools, but I look to the private companies for much more horsepower in using what is known/available now."

Eventually, Au wants to move the e-cognitive health initiative even beyond wearables to in-home devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Nest, which she hopes will give her the most accurate look on what parts of a person's life may lead to dementia in the future.

Au says that she has faced some pushback from the research community, not only because she is partnering with but because she is bucking conventional science techniques—she doesn't yet have a hypothesis on what predicts dementia, just a lot of data.

"I'm pretty sure that I have collected data that is not useful," she says. "But I am equally sure that I have collected data that is useful...it is very much about figuring it out as you go along."

Explore further: Review links albuminuria to cognitive impairment, dementia

Related Stories

Review links albuminuria to cognitive impairment, dementia

February 13, 2017
(HealthDay)—Albuminuria is associated with cognitive impairment, dementia, and cognitive decline, according to a review published online Feb. 2 in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Exercise results in larger brain size and lowered dementia risk

August 2, 2016
Using the landmark Framingham Heart Study to assess how physical activity affects the size of the brain and one's risk for developing dementia, UCLA researchers found an association between low physical activity and a higher ...

Lack of brain shrinkage may help predict who develops dementia with Lewy bodies

November 2, 2016
Dementia with Lewy bodies is a progressive disease that causes hallucinations, decline in mental abilities, rigid muscles, slow movement and tremors. With symptoms similar to Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease, a ...

Is a marker of preclinical Alzheimer's disease associated with loneliness?

November 2, 2016
A new article published online by JAMA Psychiatry used data from a study of 79 cognitively normal adults to examine whether cortical amyloid levels in the brain, a marker of preclinical Alzheimer disease, was associated with ...

Infrequent home computer use may be indicative of early cognitive decline

March 22, 2016
A new study sheds light on a powerful tool that may detect signs of Alzheimer's disease before patients show any symptoms of cognitive decline: the home computer.

Research letter examines pacemaker use in patients with cognitive impairment

July 28, 2014
Dr. Nicole R. Fowler and her fellow reserachers have found that patients with dementia were more likely to receive a pacemaker then patients without cognitive impairment.

Recommended for you

PET scans for Alzheimer's could bring benefit to more patients

October 19, 2017
An imaging tool honed to spot rogue proteins in the brain could benefit some patients with suspected Alzheimer's, according to a new study.

One step closer toward a treatment for Alzheimer's disease?

October 18, 2017
Scientists at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), in collaboration with colleagues at the University California, San Diego (UCSD), have characterized a new class of drugs as potential therapeutics for Alzheimer's disease ...

New mechanism detected in Alzheimer's disease

October 13, 2017
McGill University researchers have discovered a cellular mechanism that may contribute to the breakdown of communication between neurons in Alzheimer's disease.

Neuroscientists identify genetic changes in microglia in a mouse model of neurodegeneration and Alzheimer's disease

October 13, 2017
Microglia, immune cells that act as the central nervous system's damage sensors, have recently been implicated in Alzheimer's disease.

Green tea extract delivers molecular punch to disrupt formation of neurotoxic species

October 11, 2017
Green tea is widely considered to be beneficial for the brain. The antioxidant and detoxifying properties of green tea extracts help fight catastrophic diseases such as Alzheimer's. However, scientists have never fully understood ...

Menopause triggers metabolic changes in brain that may promote Alzheimer's

October 10, 2017
Menopause causes metabolic changes in the brain that may increase the risk of Alzheimer's disease, a team from Weill Cornell Medicine and the University of Arizona Health Sciences has shown in new research.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.