AI compares brain scans of people who think they may have dementia with brain images of people who have already been diagnosed with the condition

Credit: Andrew Brookes

Brain scans powered by artificial intelligence may soon allow doctors to diagnose dementia in a single day, a new study suggests. 

Preliminary findings from pre-clinical trials run by the University of Cambridge show that a new algorithm is able to rapidly spot signs from a scan. 

Currently, a person only gets diagnosed with dementia after several scans and consultations with experts and the process can take a number of months. 

Those involved in the work said being able to intervene earlier could help with efforts to slow the disease’s progression and ensure patients have more information on their situation at an earlier stage.

A formal trial is now being set up with around 500 patients at Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge and other memory clinics across the country.

The AI compares brain scans of people who think they may have dementia with brain images of people who have already been diagnosed with the condition. An algorithm is used to detect subtle patterns in the scans that are often missed by even expert neurologists.

Zoe Kourtzi, professor of experimental psychology at the University of Cambridge, said early intervention is key. She told the BBC: “If we intervene early, the treatments can kick in early and slow down the progression of the disease and at the same time avoid more damage.

“And it’s likely that symptoms occur much later in life or may never occur.”

What are the early signs of dementia?

Dr Timothy Rittman, a consultant neurologist at the University of Cambridge, told the BBC the AI system was a “fantastic development”.

He said: “These set of diseases are really devastating for people.

“So when I am delivering this information to a patient, anything I can do to be more confident about the diagnosis, to give them more information about the likely progression of the disease to help them plan their lives is a great thing to be able to do.”

More than 850,000 people in the UK are thought to have dementia, according to the NHS, with the condition affecting one in 14 people over the age of 65, and one in six people aged over 80.

Alzheimer’s Research UK said predictions from 2014 estimated that one million people in the UK will have dementia by 2025, doubling to two million by 2050.

Dr Laura Phipps, from the charity, said this latest work could help doctors have more confidence when looking at scans and diagnosing patients.

She said: “To diagnose dementia today, doctors need to rely on the interpretation of brain scans and cognitive tests, often over a period of time.

“Machine learning models such as those being developed by Prof Kourtzi could give doctors greater confidence in interpreting scans, leading to a more accurate diagnosis for patients.”