By Jill Gambon
Assoc. Prof. Joyita Dutta of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
has been awarded a $2.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for research that could help shed light on the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
Funded by the NIH’s National Institute on Aging, the research aims to develop models that predict the progression of tau tangles in the brain. While tau is an important protein that helps stabilize the brain’s nerve cells, in cases of Alzheimer’s, an abnormal form of tau builds ups inside the nerve cells and morphs into tangles. Along with amyloid plaques, which are abnormal proteins that build up between the nerve cells, tau tangles are primary markers for Alzheimer’s disease.
In the study, Dutta, who is the sole principal investigator on the five-year grant, will look at Alzheimer’s from a “network perspective,” viewing the interconnections between the regions of the brain.
She will use machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) tools to build models from existing patient imaging data that is available from two sources: the Harvard Aging Brain Study and the Alzheimer's Disease Neuroimaging Initiative. The AI tools will be applied to tau measures obtained from positron emission tomography (PET) scans
and structural connectivity information obtained from diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) scans to make personalized predictions of future tau buildup.
“Our approach is data driven,” she says. “There are a lot of cool AI tools we can use that we didn’t have five to 10 years back.”
While the causes of Alzheimer’s are not fully understood, the number of people affected by the disease continues to grow. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2020, as many as 5.8 million Americans were living with Alzheimer’s. That number is projected to rise to 14 million by 2060. There is currently no known cure for the disease, but research indicates that early diagnosis is key to treating it.
“Scientists know that people with Alzheimer’s experience latent changes in the brain before clinical signs of the disease like memory loss manifest,” Dutta says. Imaging can help document changes in the brain and be used to help predict future risks for cognitive decline.
“Alzheimer’s disease has a slow progression that needs to be tracked over time,” she says.
She holds faculty appointments at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. The grant was awarded to her through Mass General. UMass Lowell, as a subcontractor, will receive $1.76 million over the lifespan of the project.
Dutta has won previous NIH funding for Alzheimer’s research that focused on imaging, as well as sleep metrics as a tool for diagnosing the disease.
The latest research project will offer hands-on experience to several graduate students in the disciplines of electrical and computer engineering, biomedical engineering and physics. It will also support a full-time postdoctoral position.
“It will be a great opportunity for training the next generation of Alzheimer’s researchers,” Dutta says.