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2020 Alzheimer's Association Research Grant (AARG)

Identification of digital biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease

Can digital biomarkers help in early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s?

Honghuang Lin, Ph.D.
Boston University
Boston, MA - United States


Researchers believe that recent advances in digital device technology might
revolutionize our approach to monitor cognitive health. In particular, scientists believe
that digital technology can be used to evaluate cognition in new ways and they could
be more sensitive to pick up subtle cognitive changes. These novel technologies could
be used to potentially identify early signs of dementia.

The Framingham Heart Study (FHS) is a long-term study of cognitive health designed
to investigate cardiovascular disease and its risk factors. As part of supplementary
studies (within FHS), on cognitive aging and dementia- a variety of cognitive tests and
brain scans have been repeatedly administered to the participants. One of these
cognitive tests is the “Clock Drawing Test”, typically used to assess cognitive
impairment and dementia. Dr. Honghuang Lin and colleagues have leveraged the rich
resource of datasets available as part of the FHS study and substituted the use of a
ballpoint pen with a digital pen (that converts analog information captured using pen
and paper into a digital form of data) for the clock drawing test. Using the digital pen,
the researchers have captured several digital cognitive indices such as total drawing
time, total strokes, non-drawing time (which is the “think time”), among others, which
could potentially serve as digital biomarkers for cognitive health.

Research Plan

To date, the researchers have collected digital pen data from more than 4000 participants of the FHS study. Dr. Lin and his research team will study the association between several cognitive digital indices and traditional cognitive tests. In addition, the researchers will also investigate the association between these cognitive digital indices with brain changes, such as brain volume and brain thickness observed using brain scans collected as part of the FHS study.
Finally, the researchers will use advanced computer science algorithms (called “machine learning”), to predict cognitive health using independent digital and brain scan data as well as a combination of these datasets. 


The study results may identify novel digital biomarkers for cognitive health which may aid in early detection of cognitive decline. Families facing Alzheimer’s now and in the future will benefit greatly from early detection, allowing for important care and planning. Furthermore, when we have new therapies, we will be in a better position to know who needs treatment at the earliest time point.

This project is sponsored by the Alzheimer’s Association, Colorado Chapter.

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