A new artificial intelligence (AI) tool may be able to look for early signs of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, speeding up diagnosis.
The technology, which could help doctors assess the early signs of the condition more efficiently, has been developed by researchers at the University of Sheffield.
Known as CognoSpeak, the system uses a virtual character displayed on a screen to engage a patient in a conversation.
It asks questions to test memory, inspired by those used in outpatient consultations and conducts cognitive tests, such as picture descriptions and verbal fluency tests.
After that, the tool uses AI and speech technology to analyse language and speech patterns to look for signs of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and other memory disorders.
Researchers behind the technology suggest it could play a key role in reducing the burden on dementia assessment services, once further testing in GP and memory clinics across the UK is complete.
The National Audit of Memory Assessment Services in England and Wales, conducted between January and August 2021 by the Royal College of Psychiatrists and supported by Alzheimer’s Society, found that the average waiting time from referral to dementia diagnosis had increased to 17.7 weeks.
This was up from 13 weeks in 2019, with waiting times across services nationwide ranging between zero and 104 weeks (two years), compared to three and 34 in 2019.
There are currently around 900,000 people in the UK living with dementia, and this is projected to almost double by 2040, according to the Alzheimer’s Society.
Dr Dan Blackburn, from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Neuroscience, said: “Waiting for a possible diagnosis of dementia can be a very anxious time for patients and their families.
“This tool could help patients start treatments sooner, reduce waiting times and give people certainty earlier.
“The CognoSpeak system could transform how dementia and other memory disorders are diagnosed by speeding up assessments.
“This would also free up clinicians’ valuable time and mean that those who need specialist care get access to it as quickly as possible.”
Also an Honorary Consultant Neurologist at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and researcher at NIHR Sheffield BRC, he added: “There is a real clinical need for this kind of technology.
“There are long waiting lists for memory clinics across the UK, but there are also inequalities in accessing the memory clinics service.
“The CognoSpeak tool can reduce these inequalities and help make the service more efficient.”
Professor Heidi Christensen, from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Computer Science, added: “The way a person speaks can tell us a great deal about their cognitive health and emotional wellbeing, and give us a very early indication of any signs of cognitive decline that may not otherwise have been detected.
“The system we’ve developed here at Sheffield uses speech technology to automatically extract these signs and the automation means we can provide a consistent, accurate and fast assessment for everyone.
“CognoSpeak is advanced, high tech and based on world-leading research in this field.
“We have the biggest collection of data for this type of assessment anywhere in the world, which we’re using to advance the technology and improve its accuracy.”
The system is being designed in a way that means once it is fully rolled out, a GP could refer a person with memory complaints to use the technology.
CognoSpeak would send the test results back to the GP and then they would decide whether to refer the patient to a memory clinic for further assessment.
The programme can be accessed through a web browser – meaning patients are able to take the test in the comfort of their home, rather than having to wait for a hospital appointment to take a pen-and-paper-based assessment.
Researchers say early trials have shown the technology is as accurate at predicting Alzheimer’s as the current written tests used to assess or screen for cognitive, memory or thinking impairments.
According to the team, previous research has demonstrated accuracies of 90% for distinguishing people with Alzheimer’s from people that are cognitively healthy.
Developed by Dr Blackburn and Prof Christensen, the system is still in the research phase, but a £1.4 million National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) grant will allow it to be trialled more widely.
The researchers are recruiting 700 participants from memory clinics across the UK to help develop the system further.
The tool has been developed in collaboration with Therapy Box – a company specialising in speech and language technology – and the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Devices for Dignity MedTech Cooperative (D4D).