As populations worldwide are getting older, research indicates that noncommunicable diseases, which include degenerative and neurologic disorders, are increasing. When surveyed, aging populations rank Alzheimer’s disease (AD) or cognitive decline as their chief long-term medical concern, ahead of loss of physical mobility and the ability to afford treatment.
In a Mass AITC Webinar Series talk delivered on July 26, 2022, Dr. Rhoda Au, professor of anatomy and neurobiology, neurology, and epidemiology at the Boston University Schools of Medicine and Public Health, outlines the current state of technology use in AD research, global challenges preventing innovation, and the potential of leveraging technology to make leaps in the areas of early detection and prevention.
In her presentation, Au notes that AD and cognitive decline together rank as the highest concern globally—yet scientific research on these disorders is only occurring in certain parts of the world.
Many countries lack the necessary resources to participate in scientific research on AD and cognitive decline, such as access to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology or sufficient specialists available to lead studies. As a result of this disparity, research in this field is hindered by a lack of globally representative data as well as inherent bias in the interpretation of data.
If the goal of research is to represent all rather than just some, innovative approaches are required. Currently, researchers tend to “fit science into the methods,” which inhibits novel ideas and outside-the-box thinking. Instead, Au proposes that researchers should aim to “fit methods to the science” by rethinking study design, exclusion criteria, study protocol, statistical methods, and what researchers think of as the “gold standard,” especially when biased methods were used to arrive at those standards.
Au recommends leveraging data science and the broader digital realm to address the current gaps in global research. Technology is designed to fill gaps and generate momentum in new directions, even as it may push past boundaries and current comfort zones. Technology, Au notes, is not about simply “updating the old” with better versions that might continue to serve the same subset of users. Instead, technology can reduce or even eliminate barriers, including historical inequities. For example, worldwide smartphone ownership is nearly universal, with more than 6.6 billion active users. The use of passive, unobtrusive smartphone and digital technology presents a unique opportunity to fill gaps in data collection that have impeded research for decades.
By utilizing technology to break down barriers, researchers can collect better data and identify better solutions. Leveraging technology may lead to the ability to detect cognitive changes earlier than current methods allow—Au notes that delaying the onset of cognitive symptoms by 5 years can reduce the risk of disease by up to 50 percent. Early intervention may, in turn, prevent disease altogether.
Embracing technological innovation, making bold leaps, and seeking new perspectives in the field of health data and research can have a positive and lasting impact on the world’s aging population. These efforts may also have the added benefit of reducing health care costs and preventing disease, leading to a healthier global population.
To learn more about Dr. Au’s research at Boston University, you can visit her profile here and view the entirety of her talk, “Technology Use in Alzheimer’s Disease Research – Current Status and Future Promise.”
Dr. Rhoda Au is a professor of Anatomy and Neurobiology in the Boston University School of Medicine. View Dr. Au's full talk here and learn more about MassAITC at massaitc.org.