Saturday, March 24, 2012

Computer Tracking Dementia

Ashish Raj, PhD, Assistant Professor of Computer Science in Radiology and his team at Weill Cornell Medical College developed a computer program capable of tracing how different forms of dementia spread within a human brain. They report that their mathematic model can predict where and approximately when an individual patient’s brain will suffer from the spread, neuron to neuron of “prion-like” toxic proteins which they say underlies all forms of dementia.

The research was funded by NIH and the findings have been published in the March 22, 2012 issue of “Neuron”. The results of the study could help patients and their families confirm a diagnosis of dementia and prepare in advance for future cognitive declines over time. In the future, targeted drugs will be available to treat dementia and the findings from this research might help physicians identify suitable brain targets for therapeutic intervention.

“Think of a weather radar system with the capability to show a video of weather patterns in an area over 48 hours”, explained Dr. Raj. “Our computer model when applied to the baseline magnetic resonance imaging scan of an individual brain can similarly produce a future map of degeneration in that person over the next few years or decades.”

“This could allow neurologists to predict what the patient’s neuroanatomic and associated cognitive state will be at any given point in the future. It will be possible to tell when the patient will develop speech impediments such as memory loss, behavioral peculiarities and so on.”

The computational model is the latest and one of the most significant validations of the idea that dementia is caused by proteins that spread through the brain along networks of neurons. It was reported in February that Alzheimer’s disease starts in a particular brain region but spreads further via misfolded toxic “tau” proteins. These studies were done by researchers at Columbia University Medical Center and Massachusetts General Hospital but only focused on Alzheimer’s disease.

According to Dr. Raj, the classic patterns of dementia are well known. This however, is the first computer model to relate brain network properties to patterns and explain them in a deterministic and predictive manner.

The study’s third author is Michael Weiner, M.D, Professor of Radiology at the University of California, San Francisco, and the Principal investigator of the Alzheimer’s disease neuroimaging initiations.

For more information on the study, email Richard Pietzak at