PRESS RELEASE: Scientists build new tool aimed at early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease

Frankl founder, Dr Jon Brock with neuropsychologist and dementia researcher, Professor Greg Savage

For years, neuropsychologist Professor Greg Savage has been figuring out how to detect Alzheimer’s disease earlier. Now he’s teamed up with Dr Jon Brock from open science startup, Frankl, to build a brand new Alzheimer’s detection app.

The app aims to combine a simple memory test with open science features that allow results to feed more readily into research.

Professor Savage conducts his research at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders, based at Macquarie University. He believes the key to earlier detection lies in the development of more specific cognitive tests.

“A lot of my clinical work is related to the assessment of whether someone is at risk of having a neurodegenerative condition like Alzheimer’s disease,” says Savage. “Often the answer is not suggestive enough.”

“What we need is a test that really focuses on the functions of areas of the brain that are involved early on in conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.”

In his research with patients, Savage has developed a simple test that measures the ability to form new memories of pairs of words. This task relies heavily on an area of the brain called the hippocampus. It’s expected that that patients in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease may find this test particularly difficult because the hippocampus is impacted by Alzheimer’s very early in the disease progression. Savage and Brock will examine whether this test can set them apart from patients with other forms of dementia and mild cognitive impairment.

“The goal is to have a test that is not too confronting — simple, short — but can distinguish between the kind of memory problem that is something to be seriously worried about versus one which might not be so worrisome.”

“Earlier detection [of risk of Alzheimer’s] could flag the need for effective modifications of lifestyle such that the disease process is slowed.”

Development of the app’s open science capabilities is led by cognitive scientist Dr Jon Brock, founder of Frankl. His team is building data sharing features directly into the data collection process. Data collected via the app is archived ‘on the fly’ in secure repositories. A blockchain integration creates a permanent, timestamped record of the data’s existence and its “digital fingerprint” without revealing anything about the patient.

Savage believes enhanced data sharing capabilities could help propel research in the treatment of people with dementia.

“This whole area of clinical research is hampered by people working in silos,” says Savage. “There are lots of memory clinics around — even across Sydney — but they don’t tend to talk to each other very much…Apps which work on an open science basis and with data sharing offer a way out of that tight loop that people get in.”

“We would have not only distributed and large datasets but we would have collected them over periods of time, which would be ideal for tracking disease processes longitudinally.”

Frankl’s new application will be of benefit to researchers and clinicians working with individuals with actual or suspected memory impairments. Its in-built data management features will ultimately allow sharing of data between relevant clinicians, patients, and caregivers, with security a key focus.

“Of course there’s the perennial problem of data sharing with medical records,” says Savage. “A technology that has multiple levels of security with distribution of essential data — so that no node in this network actually gets to see the whole story — provides a level of security that we would insist upon.”

The unique data sharing and open science capabilities designed by Frankl recently drew the attention of the Wellcome Trust, a UK-based fund that invested over a billion pounds in biomedical research in 2017 alone. Last month, Brock and Savage were awarded the Wellcome Trust’s open research grant to build the new app, which will be trialled in early 2019.

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