Today marks the launch date of a £100 million project launched by Alzheimer’s Research UK that will see a million Brits recruited to trial an AI-powered smart watch design to detect early symptoms of dementia. Partly funded by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, it is hoped that the trials will confirm how the new technology could ‘revolutionise’ the early detection and subsequent treatment of Alzheimer’s.
The smart watch device uses AI to monitor over 30 indicators, including the wearer’s gait, speech and sleep. The hope is the data the technology will gather over millions of patients will pinpoint early tell-tale signs of encroaching Dementia. The degenerative brain disease’s progress can be slowed through changes to lifestyle if detected early.
Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia progress for up to two decades before sufferers notice any symptoms. That means significant damage has usually already been done to the brain before diagnosis. It is believed that early intervention could make a big difference to the ability of the 50 million sufferers of Alzheimer’s worldwide to live with and manage the disease for far longer.
Successful trials could see NHS patients being offered the device as part of an annual health check. British scientists are currently analysing the clinical data of 10,000 dementia sufferers, gathered through international studies. This, it is hoped, will reveal the ‘fingerprints’ of the disease in its early stages. The indicators monitored by the smart watch would then reveal if this ‘fingerprint’ is detectable in individuals long before any more obvious symptoms might surface.
The project aims to have the prototype technology on the wrists of a million over 40s in the UK within 3 years. These volunteers will be recruited through the government’s Accelerating Detection of Disease programme.
Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia lead to memory loss, confusion and even often significant personality change. It is the leading cause of death in the UK and there are currently no treatments available demonstrated to effectively slow or halt the brain diseases behind dementia.
The Alzheimer’s Research UK initiative forms part of a broader international project and will involve collaboration with organisations leading the field in clinical and neurodegenerative research and data science. These include the Alan Turing Institute, Cambridge, Newcastle and Exeter universities, as well as University College London.
Funding for the project’s initial phase has been donated by Bill Gates and Iceland Foods’ charitable foundation. The aim is to raise around £67 million to fund the first six years of the research and up to £100 million by 2030.
Carol Routledge, a director at Alzheimer’s Research UK, explained the aim of the initiative:
“Developing digital fingerprints that can be detected using phone apps or wearable technologies like smart watches would provide a low-cost approach to identifying those most at risk of disease.
“Identifying the very earliest changes in these diseases would transform research efforts.”
Professor Chris Holmes, a director at the Alan Turing Institute, Oxford, added:
“More accurate and timely detection will enable earlier enrolment for patients on to clinical trials and provide new scientific insight into the initial stages of diseases like Alzheimer’s.
“The UK is uniquely placed to undertake this work with its expertise in AI and the clinical sciences, coupled with [the] NHS.”
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