A team of University of Maryland Undergraduates belonging to the facility’s James Clark School of Engineering has attained the highest commendation in the 2017 Design by Biomedical Undergraduate Teams (DEBUT) challenge hosted by the National Institutes of Health. The contest pits several teams against each other in a race to see which of them can develop the best biomedical solutions in terms of both design and innovation. The team in question received the top prize for their inexpensive solution to help identify Alzheimer’s disease on potential patients before the symptoms begin to manifest.
This year’s DEBUT challenge managed to raise $65,000 in prize money through a public-private alliance between the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) and VentureWell, a non-profit organization dedicated to higher education and the promotion of groundbreaking and innovative biomedical solutions. The contest saw the participation of 41 entries across 22 educational facilities and 16 states, of which only 3 were selected as top entries. The projects were evaluated based on the nature of the problem they tackled, the innovation of the solution, and its potential impact on modern clinical care.
Alzheimer’s disease, also referred to as Alzheimer's Senile Dementia is a neurodegenerative disease which manifests itself as a severe and progressive cognitive deterioration alongside several behavioral disorders. While the latter is a consequence of the former, it is the behavioral issues which make approaching and tending to the afflicted a challenging endeavor. As the disease progresses, the person becomes increasingly disconnected from reality and may become disoriented and paranoid as a result.
To this day, the exact factors behind the disease’s onset are still unknown, though its origin has been traced in several occasions to genetic factors. In this sense, those who have a history of Alzheimer’s within their family are more likely to develop the ailment than those who do not. Furthermore, the disease has been observed to affect women more than men, particularly in senior citizens over 85 years of age. Every year, around 10 to 15 new cases of dementia per each 1,000 inhabitants surface, 5 to 8 of which are Alzheimer’s. This means that, in most cases, more than half of the new cases of dementia are Alzheimer’s.
Despite the underlying causes behind the onset of the disease remaining unknown, the single most observed common factor is old age; there are higher probabilities of developing the disease the older the person is. In the United States, the prevalence of Alzheimer’s was 1.6% in the year 2000 for both the general populace, as well as those belonging to the 65-74 year age group. Meanwhile, there was a 19% prevalence increase for those between the ages of 75-64, and a subsequent 42% increase in those beyond 84 years of age.
The disease affects the individual in many different ways. Its symptoms are divided into several phases, becoming increasingly critical as time goes by. In the first phase, known as predementia, the disease’s symptoms are very easy to confuse with issues that usually stem from old age, the most notable being short-term memory loss, as well as the difficulty to register new information. At this point, a neuropsychological investigation may discover signs and symptoms up to 8 years before they progress into the next phase. The next stage of the disease consists of dementia of increasing magnitudes, and are called initial dementia, moderate dementia, and advanced dementia, respectively. During these phases, the person’s memory loss increases to include long-term memory as well as he or she begins losing other faculties. In the final phases of the disease, the patient loses motor functions and muscle mass and usually expires not to the disease itself, but from complications that stem from remaining bedridden for extended periods of time.
In face of a disease which severely addles those who suffer from it and remains the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, a team of 7 undergraduates belonging to the James Clark School of Engineering of the University of Maryland set off to develop a solution to facilitate the early diagnosis of the disease. The researchers called themselves Synapto and presented their solution in the Design by Medical Undergraduate Teams challenge hosted by the National Institutes of Health, in which they obtained first place alongside $20,000 in prize money.
Their solution consists of a portable electroencephalogram which uses a specialized headset alongside proprietary software which works in tandem to identify Alzheimer’s patterns far before the symptoms begin to manifest in the person. The headset focuses on specific changes in the patient’s brainwaves which happen in response to several auditory cues provided through the headset. The device then uses several mathematical and analytical tools to compare said results with those of a healthy brain and, through a machine learning model, it can examine the results to provide an early Alzheimer’s diagnosis with great accuracy.
The process is very simple, inexpensive, and quick, and could prove to be an invaluable tool as a part of the patient’s standard medical examination. The expectation is that, through this innovative solution, the identification and early detection of Alzheimer’s become as streamlined and simple as, say, a regular blood test, so that it could be used on any patient during regular checkups.
The most common current methods of diagnosing the disease are through positron emission tomography scans, magnetic resonance imaging, and spinal taps, all of which are costly, time-intensive and, in the case of the latter, intrusive and very painful. As a result, patients who can’t afford these tests are currently diagnosed based solely on their symptoms, which can sometimes prove to be inaccurate and bring about undesirable results. Moreover, these methods can seldom detect Alzheimer’s as early as the innovative solution can, rendering moot the point of early diagnosis. Furthermore, patients who cannot afford the expensive tests mentioned above can take several years to receive a proper diagnosis, after which the disease might have already progressed to further stages, complicating its treatment.
Regardless of the outcome of this research, the new solution for the early detection of Alzheimer’s has already proved to be much more accessible — economically speaking — than the alternative, and will serve to give hope to those who are struggling with symptoms but have yet to receive a formal diagnosis. Furthermore, through the early detection of Alzheimer’s, the patients, alongside their families, will be able to take measures and make informed decisions about future courses of action far before the symptoms begin to manifest.