Local College Students Invent New Gadget to Diagnose Alzheimer’s

University of Maryland Student Invention- EEG to diagnose Alzheimer’s (photo: NIH)

Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. It is the most common cause of dementia in older adults.

Currently, doctors can’t definitively diagnose Alzheimer’s, so they typically inform patients of “possible Alzheimer’s dementia,” “probable Alzheimer’s dementia,” or some other problem causing memory complaints. The only definitive diagnosis that exists for Alzheimer’s comes from an autopsy. However, a team of sophomores at the University of Maryland, College Park, may have invented a gadget that could help change that! In fact, they just won first prize in a National Institutes of Health (NIH) competition for their prototype portable EEG device designed to diagnose Alzheimer’s, in a convenient, inexpensive manner.

“The solution is really smart and has the potential to really work,” said Zeynep Erim, program director at NIH’s National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering and a judge in the contest. She was impressed by the students’ entry in the Design by Biomedical Undergraduate Teams (DEBUT) Challenge.

From Concussions to Alzheimer’s

When the students were working on their entry for the competition, they were initially focusing on concussions, since there has been a lot of discussion of concussions in professional football players. The students were thinking of how they could use an electroencephalogram (EEG), a test that records the electrical activity of the brain, to diagnose brain waves for concussion.
When their initial idea didn’t work out, they shifted their focus to whether an EEG could be used to diagnose Alzheimer’s. They discovered a lot of literature on the topic, but nothing was ever brought to market. Both of the student team leaders had relatives who had died of Alzheimer’s, so the students thought this could be a way their research could help other individuals and families afflicted by the disease.

How the Invention Works

The EEG used in a research lab typically has as many as 256 electrodes, is the size of a desk, and costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. The team felt that it was much more than it needed for its purposes, as it only takes eight or 16 electrodes to record brain waves.

Therefore, they used a portable EEG with an open source headset, the Ultracortex by OpenBCI, which costs less than $2,000, and connected it to a laptop computer. Using this, the team would look at the brain signals and finds patterns in healthy patients and those with Alzheimer’s. They then extracted features from brain signals and asked the computer what kinds of patterns it saw.

The small-scale trial the students did was with existing data from other studies. The machine, using data from the portable EEG and mathematical algorithms created by the students, was able to predict Alzheimer’s in those patients with 83% accuracy. “It’s definitely not diagnostic yet, but I think it gives it some value,” said Christopher Look, one of the student researchers.

NIH calls the device “a noninvasive and relatively inexpensive tool with the potential to detect Alzheimer’s disease with a high level of accuracy.” The agency says the device “could make dementia diagnosis more quantitative, systematic and less costly — allowing doctors to use it at regular checkups.”

Next Steps for the Students

Currently, the student researchers are figuring out if they want to pursue research for early diagnosis or for diagnosis of current patients. Either would be an improvement from what is used today. The most widely used diagnostic tools now are a questionnaire, the Mini-Mental State Exam (MMSE), and an MRI and PET scan, which are expensive and disruptive. “If this [test] can tell you there’s something wrong or you just need further testing, it [the device] could still be valuable to a patient,” Look said.

Another possible way to test for Alzheimer’s

An experimental blood test is another test that is being developed to possibly diagnose Alzheimer’s disease, according to a study published in the journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Though still in development, the test may someday be used to diagnose other degenerative brain disorders and even mild cognitive impairment resulting from head injuries.

The researchers say that using the test, they were able to identify Alzheimer’s patients with up to 86% sensitivity and specificity. The test also differentiated Alzheimer’s from dementia with Lewy bodies, a related condition, with 90% sensitivity and specificity.

The test is currently beyond pilot studies, and in the validation phase. It could take 5-10 more years, however, before it’s fully released. Researchers are still concerned that at this time, the accuracy isn’t high enough, and could lead to misdiagnoses. Read more about this blood test on CNN’s website. 

Benefits of Early Diagnosis

Hopefully, the EEG developed by the students and the blood test become viable ways to accurately test for Alzheimer’s in the future. Once people with Alzheimer’s find out that they  have the disease, they can take advantage of the benefits to early diagnosis, even though no treatment or cure currently exists. For instance, those who learn that they are likely to have Alzheimer’s could enroll in clinical trials testing possible treatments. Another potential benefit could be that it will help those with Alzheimer’s work with their family, caregivers, and an experienced elder law attorney, such as myself, to plan for their future and their loved ones.

Medicaid Planning for Alzheimer’s and Other Types of Dementia

Alzheimer’s is the biggest health and social care challenge of our generation, and a diagnosis of the disease is life-changing.  When it comes to planning for long-term care needs, generally, the earlier someone with dementia plans, the better. But it is never too late to begin the process of Long-term Care Planning, also called Lifecare Planning and Medicaid Asset Protection Planning.

Medicaid planning can be initiated by an adult child acting as agent under a properly-drafted Power of Attorney, even if your loved one is already in a nursing home or receiving other long-term care.

Medicaid Asset Protection

Do you have a loved one who is suffering from Alzheimer’s or any other type of dementia? Persons with dementia and their families face special legal and financial needs. Here at the Farr Law Firm, we are dedicated to easing the financial and emotional burden on those suffering from dementia and their loved ones. We help protect the family’s hard-earned assets while maintaining your loved one’s comfort, dignity, and quality of life by ensuring eligibility for critical government benefits such as Medicaid and Veterans Aid and Attendance. As always, please feel free to call us for an initial consultation:

Fairfax Alzheimer’s Planning: 703-691-1888
Fredericksburg Alzheimer’s Planning: 540-479-1435
Rockville Alzheimer’s Planning: 301-519-8041
DC Alzheimer’s Planning: 202-587-2797

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.