Scientists are testing an artificial intelligence system thought to be capable of diagnosing dementia after one brain scan.
It may even be ready to predict whether the condition will remain stable for several years, slowly deteriorate or need immediate treatment.
Currently, it can take several scans and tests to diagnose dementia.
The researchers involved say earlier diagnoses with their system could greatly improve patient outcomes.
“If we intervene early, the treatments can kick in early and hamper the progression of the disease and at an equivalent time avoid more damage,” Prof Zoe Kourtzi, of Cambridge University and a fellow of the national centre for AI and data science The Turing Institute, said.
“And it’s likely that symptoms occur much later in life or may never occur.”
Prof Kourtzi’s system compares brain scans of these worried they could have dementia with those of thousands of dementia patients and their relevant medical records.
The algorithm can identify patterns within the scans even expert neurologists cannot see and match them to patient outcomes in its database.
In pre-clinical tests, it’s been ready to diagnose dementia, years before symptoms develop, even when there are no obvious signs of injury on the brain scan.
The trial, at Addenbrooke’s Hospital and other memory clinics around the country, will test whether it works during a clinical setting, alongside conventional ways of diagnosing dementia.
In the first year, about 500 patients are expected to participate.
Their results will attend their doctors, who can, if necessary, advise on the course of treatment.
Consultant neurologist Dr Tim Rittman, who is leading the study, with neuroscientists at Cambridge University, called the artificial-intelligence system a “fantastic development”.
“These sets of diseases are really devastating for people,” he said.
“So once I am delivering this information to a patient, anything I can do to be more confident about the diagnosis, to offer them more information about the likely progression of the disease to assist them to plan their lives may be a great point to be ready to do.”
Among the primary to participate within the trial, Denis Clark, 75, retired from his job as an executive for a meat company five years ago.
Last year, his wife, Penelope, noticed he was sometimes battling his memory.
And they are now concerned he’s developing dementia.
Denis tries to elucidate his symptoms but Penelope interjects to mention he finds it hard to explain what’s happening.
The couple is worried about having to sell their home to fund Denis’s care.
So Penelope is relieved they ought to not need to wait long for a diagnosis and a sign of how any dementia is probably going to progress.
“We could then plan financially,” she said.
“We would know whether as a couple of we could have a few holidays before things get so bad that I can not take Denis on holiday.”
Another of Dr Rittman’s patients, Mark Thompson, 57, who began having memory lapses 10 months ago, before the trial of the artificial-intelligence system began, said it might have made an enormous difference to him had it been available.
“I had test after test after test and a minimum of four scans before I used to be diagnosed,” he said.
“The medical team was marvellous and did everything they might urge to the rock bottom of what was wrong with me.
“But the uncertainty was causing me more… mental problems than any caused by the condition.
“Was it a tumour? Would they have to operate? It caused me such a lot of stress not knowing what was wrong with me.”