Undergraduates develop tools to diagnose Alzheimer's disease before patients show symptoms

August 28, 2017, University of Maryland
A prototype of the UMD team's tool to diagnose Alzheimer's disease before patients show symptoms. Credit: University of Maryland

A team of seven University of Maryland A. James Clark School of Engineering undergraduates earned the top prize in this year's National Institutes of Health (NIH) Design by Biomedical Undergraduate Teams (DEBUT) challenge for their efforts to develop low-cost tools to diagnose Alzheimer's disease before patients show symptoms.

"This represents a monumental achievement, not simply for the engineering community, but for the wider world of human health research," said Darryll J. Pines, dean of the Clark School and Nariman Farvardin Professor. "As rising sophomores, these seven students in many ways represent the future of biomedical innovation. Through collaborations with faculty and researchers across a range of disciplines, they have transformed ideas into innovation that could one day change how Alzheimer's and other diseases are diagnosed."

The team, known as "Synapto," was awarded $20,000 from the NIH National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) for developing a portable electroencephalogram (EEG) that uses a specially designed headset and a new software analysis tool to detect Alzheimer's disease before a patient displays clinical symptoms. The device exploits changes observed in the brainwaves of Alzheimer's patients in response to special auditory tones. The team, which recently filed for a company LLC in Maryland, believes their work could help make dementia diagnosis more quantitative, more systematic, and less costly - allowing doctors to use it at regular check-ups.

"Alzheimer's disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, costing the nation close to $259 billion this year," said UMD Fischell Department of Bioengineering (BIOE) undergraduate and Synapto team captain Dhruv Patel, citing data from the Alzheimer's Association. "Diagnosing the disease early on allows patients to open up treatment options, manage the disease properly, and slow its progression."

Today, PET scans, MRIs, and spinal taps are most commonly used to diagnose Alzheimer's disease. Such methods are expensive and, at times, invasive, so many patients are diagnosed based only on their symptoms.

"It can take up to two years after clinical symptoms arise for patients to receive a proper diagnosis, and by then, he or she may have already seen significant progression of the disease," Patel said. "To address this, our technique allows us to characterize an Alzheimer's patient's brainwave using a variety of mathematical analytical tools and compare it with a healthy patient's brainwave to create a machine-learning model that can then accurately predict the probability of the patient having the disease."

"Synapto's project serves as a prime example of how tomorrow's bioengineers are working today to find solutions to some of the most significant health challenges our society faces," said John Fisher, Fischell Family Distinguished Professor and BIOE chair. "It is inspiring to see our students driven to make a real-world impact so early in their academic careers, and I look forward to their future successes."

Organized by the UMD student chapter of the Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES-UMD), Synapto's team members are: BIOE students David Boegner, Megha Guggari, Chris Look (a computer science double-major), Anoop Patel, and Dhruv Patel; and Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering students Megan Forte and Brianna Sheard, a recent transfer from UMD. The group's participation in the competition was led, in part, by the BMES-UMD executive board and supported by faculty advisor Steven Jay, a BIOE assistant professor. Bill Idsardi, chair of UMD's Department of Linguistics, provided the initial hardware that helped accelerate the project.

The DEBUT challenge this year awarded $65,000 in prizes, supported by a public-private partnership between NIBIB and VentureWell, a non-profit higher-education network that cultivates revolutionary ideas and promising inventions. Of 41 eligible entries received from 22 universities across 16 states, NIBIB selected three winning teams based on the significance of the problem addressed, impact on clinical care, innovation of design, and evidence of a working prototype. VentureWell selected two additional teams based on market potential and patentability.

Each of this year's winners will be formally recognized at the annual Biomedical Engineering Society (BMES) conference in Phoenix on October 12.

Explore further: New Machine Learning program shows promise for early Alzheimer's diagnosis

Related Stories

New Machine Learning program shows promise for early Alzheimer's diagnosis

August 15, 2017
A new machine learning program developed by researchers at Case Western Reserve University appears to outperform other methods for diagnosing Alzheimer's disease before symptoms begin to interfere with every day living, initial ...

Newly discovered biomarkers may lead to promising diagnostic tool for Alzheimer's

July 28, 2017
Diagnosing Alzheimer's disease and determining a patient's prognosis is an inexact business, and that stands in the way of better personalized care and advances in treatment.

Testing begins for student-created app to aid Alzheimer's diagnosis

August 1, 2017
In the hectic, tightly scheduled day at a memory clinic, doctors set aside blocks of time to meet with new patients suspected of having dementia. But much of that time is taken up gathering information needed to make a diagnosis, ...

Noninvasive eye scan could detect key signs of Alzheimer's years before patients show symptoms

August 17, 2017
Cedars-Sinai neuroscience investigators have found that Alzheimer's disease affects the retina—the back of the eye—similarly to the way it affects the brain. The study also revealed that an investigational, noninvasive ...

Brain amyloid PET scans enhance the diagnosis of Alzheimer's

July 17, 2017
The build-up of amyloid protein in the brain is a hallmark feature of Alzheimer's disease, and its detection often relies on the testing of brain and spinal fluid samples. More recently, PET brain scans have been able to ...

Is it Alzheimer's disease or another dementia?

July 26, 2017
A new method may help determine whether a person has Alzheimer's disease or frontotemporal dementia, two different types of dementia that often have similar symptoms, according to a preliminary study published in the July ...

Recommended for you

Pregnancy history may be tied to Alzheimer's disease

July 18, 2018
A woman's history of pregnancy may affect her risk of Alzheimer's disease decades later, according to a study published in the July 18, 2018, online issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. ...

Molecular tracer, seen with PET scan, shows concentrations of abnormal proteins

July 17, 2018
In a small study of military personnel who had suffered head trauma and had reported memory and mood problems, UCLA researchers found brain changes similar to those seen in retired football players with suspected chronic ...

Yale-developed test for Alzheimer's disease directly measures synaptic loss

July 16, 2018
Yale researchers have tested a new method for directly measuring synaptic loss in individuals with Alzheimer's disease. The method, which uses PET imaging technology to scan for a specific protein in the brain linked to synapses, ...

New study highlights Alzheimer's herpes link, experts say

July 12, 2018
A new commentary by scientists at the Universities of Manchester and Edinburgh on a study by Taiwanese epidemiologists supports the viability of a potential way to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease.

Practice imperfect—repeated cognitive testing can obscure early signs of dementia

July 12, 2018
Alzheimer's disease (AD) is a progressive, neurodegenerative condition that often begins with mild cognitive impairment or MCI, making early and repeated assessments of cognitive change crucial to diagnosis and treatment.

The 'Big Bang' of Alzheimer's: Scientists ID genesis of disease, focus efforts on shape-shifting tau

July 10, 2018
Scientists have discovered a "Big Bang" of Alzheimer's disease – the precise point at which a healthy protein becomes toxic but has not yet formed deadly tangles in the brain.

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.