Wearables initiative to detect early signs of Alzheimer’s
February 25, 2020
Dementia research charity Alzheimer’s Research UK has launched a global initiative to revolutionise the early detection of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s by using wearable technology such as smart watches.
The project will harness and analyse a wealth of digital data to develop signatures of disease – or fingerprints – that can be then detected using wearable technologies.
The collaboration aims to secure at least £67m over the first six years, with an ambition to attract up to £100m of total investment by 2030 to build and trial its diagnostic device on a large scale. Initial funds towards the initiative have already been secured from Bill Gates and Iceland Foods Charitable Foundation.
The Early Detection of Neurodegenerative diseases (EDoN) initiative launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month will now become a focus for the charity’s fundraising to secure the further support required.
Diseases such as Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, start to develop in the brain up to two decades before symptoms of dementia begin to show. Researchers worldwide now agree that future treatments and preventions will have greatest benefit when given as early as possible in the disease.
With potential new treatments for early Alzheimer’s on the horizon, Alzheimer’s Research UK believes now is a critical time to act to identify very early brain changes in diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
EDoN sees Alzheimer’s Research UK join forces with leading organisations in data science, clinical and neurodegenerative research to collect and analyse clinical and digital health data such as sleep, gait and speech patterns, to develop early digital fingerprints of diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
“Our research shows that 85% of UK adults would be willing to take a test that could tell them if they were in the early stages of a disease like Alzheimer’s, even before symptoms show,” said Carol Routledge, director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK. “EDoN aims to harness the growing popularity of digital health technology and big data to revolutionise how we develop early tests for these diseases. Developing digital fingerprints that can be detected using phone apps or wearable technologies like smart watches would provide a low-cost approach to identifying those most at risk of disease.”
She said that identifying the very earliest changes in these diseases would transform research efforts today, giving a better chance of stopping these diseases before the symptoms of dementia start to get in the way of life.
Chris Holmes from the University of Oxford, and programme director for health at the Alan Turing Institute, the UK’s national institute for data science and artificial intelligence and an EDoN partner, added: “Artificial intelligence has the potential to transform the learning opportunities from large scale data studies such as EDoN by integrating information from multiple sources, this being an area of strength at the Turing.”
The aim is to use AI to deliver new insights into the early signals of disease by combining digital data measurements with traditional sources such as brain imaging and memory tests. More accurate and timely detection should enable earlier enrolment for patients onto clinical trials and provide scientific insight into the initial stages of diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
“The UK is uniquely placed to undertake this work with its expertise in AI and the clinical sciences, coupled with an NHS that is critical to deliver patient benefit,” said Holmes. “We are delighted to be embarking on this partnership.”
In December 2018, the UK government committed £79m through the Life Sciences Sector Deal 2 to create the Accelerating Detection of Disease cohort, a group of up to five million people to act as a testbed for data-driven discovery. As a partner on that project, Alzheimer’s Research UK plans to use the cohort to validate technologies emerging from EDoN on a scale that’s not been possible before.
“We want to make this the best country in the world to live well with dementia and early detection and diagnosis is a huge step towards improving the lives of those with the condition,” said UK minister for care Caroline Dinenage. “Harnessing cutting-edge technology to spot the early signs of dementia can be used to transform research to improve outcomes and even one day stop this disease in its tracks. This is an incredibly exciting initiative which has the potential to bring together global partners to transform how we treat dementia as well as to live well with it.”