Alzheimer’s researchers do not want to get lost in digital translation

New technology advancements in virtual and augmented reality can help to have more immersive experiences alleviating comorbidities like depression and anxiety often suffered by dementia and Alzheimer patients. [SHUTTERSTOCK/HQUALITY]

This article is part of our special report Alzheimer’s disease in the EU during and after pandemic.

Transposing research outcomes into digital products and services is a complex but stimulating process that could move the needle in diagnosing Alzheimer early but also in improving the quality of life of patients.

The digital revolution is set to change the health world as we know it and the EU executive jumped on the e-Health wagon already in 2018, with the communication on enabling the digital transformation of health and care in the digital single market.

But it was only with the COVID-19 pandemic that both doctors and patients experienced the benefits of digital channels of communications, particularly when people had issues in getting access to basic health services because of restrictive measures.

“Especially with the pandemic, more people used digital technologies in their daily lives, even in the health sector where patients directly engaged with such tools,” explained Jan-Philipp Beck, CEO of Europe’s leading health innovation initiative EIT Health.

Researchers are already looking at the potential of telemedicine as it could offer solutions that could help to cope with conditions like dementia.

“But it is hugely complex to transfer those findings. Biomarkers opened a whole new field of translating research into digital and useful applications to support care and diagnostics,” he said.

It is worth the effort though. Beck mentioned the project Alzheimer’s Disease Prediction Service (ADPS), which was spun off from ETH Zurich and developed together with the Trinity College in Dublin.

The project consisted of developing a pre-symptomatic biomarker to predict whether someone is likely to develop Alzheimer’s in the next six-year period. The final research result was a 10-minute test for smartphones.

“The outcome is something that looks quite simple – it is essentially a virtual reality-enabled game, but it supports diagnostics and the understanding of early cognitive impairment,” said EIT’s Beck.

This technology helps diagnose the early stages of Alzheimer in an easy, non-invasive manner, with 87-94% diagnostic accuracy. “But doing that was a six-year journey on the research side.”

“Beyond Alzheimer and dementia, I see more readiness and openness to also embrace new technologies amongst patients but also health professionals,” Beck said.

Dementia: everyone has heard the word, but no one understands

“I will eventually have the luxury of forgetting, all those around me won’t have that luxury, they will never forget what dementia has done to us,” Chris Roberts, who has dementia, told EURACTIV.com in an interview, emphasising the need for increased awareness over a devastating disease is present in all corners of the world.

The revolution of biomarkers

ADPS was among the first solutions in the world to assess cognition using virtual reality, but health researchers are already thinking of a world in which digital health practices will be adopted more broadly.

The biotech company Biogen is one of the pioneers of this. Before joining the company, Thorsten Lambertus had first-hand experience of what it takes to generate research insights and convert them into something with value.

At that time, he worked with technologies that analyse micro-expressions on camera. “In general, we are able to understand age, sex, but also emotions through that,” he said.

Several startups and research groups are working on understanding how early stages of dementia and mild cognitive impairment may be detected this way, for instance through analysing the speech.

“At some point, all those research results might build services that enable diagnostics at a very early stage and also monitoring disease progression over time,” Lambertus added.

Biogen and the tech juggernaut Apple launched a partnership to develop digital biomarkers to help monitor cognitive performance, which is the ability to think clearly, learn and remember.

“There are many different components that could be detected very early on through wearables devices or smartphones,” Lambertus explained, mentioning biomarkers like motor function, breath and speech.

At the same time, digital tools have the potential to empower doctors, general practitioners and specialists to collect relevant data through digitalised cognitive tests.

Other approaches involve AI solutions for radiologists that make it easier to analyse and predict the progression of Alzheimer through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

‘Increasingly popular’ patient engagement in Alzheimer research is bearing fruit

Patient involvement in research on dementia has shown to be mutually beneficial, both to the quality of medical studies and to people’s rights to be involved in relevant research about their own condition, according to health experts.

Patient-centred approach

Digital health services could play a role not only in diagnostic but also in improving care and quality of life, a key component of Alzheimer patients’ journey.

“We always need to find ways to understand what is quality of life for each specific patient and having a personalised medicine approach is very important,” Lambertus said.

New technology advancements in virtual and augmented reality, for instance, help to have more immersive experiences alleviating comorbidities like depression and anxiety often suffered by dementia patients.

EIT Health and Biogen launched a prize aiming at finding tech solutions that can help improve the quality of life for those impacted by Alzheimer’s disease.

The most innovative projects can earn a monetary reward of €100k for the winning solution and €50k for the runner-up. Selected teams will also gain access to the 3-month acceleration programme.

The e-Health game is played also on the EU turf with the proposal for a European health data space, a cornerstone for the digitalisation of the sector.

“It’s a bundle of potential policy and regulatory measures that could help to capitalise on those opportunities and really utilise data for research and innovation, “ commented EIT’s Beck.

According to him though, Europe needs to get it right with proper data legislation to keep Europe both a front runner in the field and to create trust in the patients.

“To keep people on board and involved, they need to be trusting this,” he said, adding that it is crucial to ensure that people’s rights and their consent in giving their own health data are preserved.

“That’s a key feature of Europe, it’s part of our identity. We do not privatise people’s data. [Only this way] can we have a very citizen and patient-centred approach,” he concluded.

EU grapples with building a 'house' for health data

Having drilled the first bolts of its ambitious EU health agenda, the European Commission is now called to the challenging task of creating a trustworthy, patient-centred European health data space.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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