University of Saskatchewan

September 16, 2014   

U of S-Designed Computer Program to Identify Early-Stage Dementia

Nicole in front of the remote memory clinic where her lab is located. (Photo by Amy Niska)
September 28, 2009

By Anne-Marie Hickey

As baby boomers age, the prevalence of dementia in Canada is expected to double to 750,000 cases by 2030, according to the Alzheimer's Society of Canada.

“It is really important to identify dementia early on because a lot of the medications or behavioural interventions are only useful in early stages,” said University of Saskatchewan psychology PhD student Nicole Haugrud.

“After that, the disease progresses to a stage where it is more difficult to treat. The earlier we can make a diagnosis, the better.”

Working with supervisor Margaret Crossley at the rural remote memory clinic on campus, Haugrud has developed a new method of analyzing verbal fluency tests to help diagnose dementia at an earlier age, allowing for crucial treatment.

She teamed up with U of S computer science student Craig Thompson to develop a computer program to score and interpret the tests more quickly and effectively.

“This computer program has the potential to transform the study of verbal fluency,” said Crossley. “There will be a lot of researchers interested in using this tool. There are many human errors that can be avoided by using a well-designed computer program.”

Dementia is an irreversible loss of intellectual abilities—such as memory—that worsens with time. It is caused by physical changes to the brain and severe cases often interfere with daily functioning. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, accounting for up to 70 per cent of all cases.

Haugrud is using verbal fluency tests that measure how quickly individuals can generate names in certain categories, such as fruits and vegetables, or types of animals. By measuring and comparing performance in various test categories, she can help determine the type of dementia an individual may be facing.

She is also searching the test results for indicators of differences between sexes, and how brain functions change with age.

“Nicole is going to help us understand how testing verbal fluency can help neuro-psychologists identify and diagnose dementia in early stages,” said Crossley. “Right now we’re not able to treat many types of dementia very well, but as we learn more, we hope to be able to have better treatments.”

Haugrud spent most of last summer scoring data from verbal fluency tests. This year, as a result of the new program, she can simply enter key words from the tests and the computer scores them.

Haugrud and Thompson hope to write a joint paper on the program so other researchers can apply the technology to their own projects.

Haugrud’s research will also help psychologists understand the healthy human brain. In addition to studying people with dementia, she has been testing volunteers and family members of clients to compare healthy aging brains with those who have dementia.

“Contributing to knowledge of the healthy human brain is important,” said Crossley. “This kind of work goes back and forth—we learn more about the healthy brain and about those affected by dementia.”

Haugrud is the recipient of a Canadian Institutes of Health Research graduate scholarship worth $35,000 per year for three years to study Alzheimer’s disease.

This research is important to Haugrud because her family has a history of the disease and she finds it rewarding to work with people affected by dementia.

She has spent time in Northern communities and rural areas in Saskatchewan administering tests to people without access to city clinics.

She is also a volunteer and the junior clinical psychology representative for Student Wellness Initiative Toward Community Health, a student-run clinic housed at the Westside Community Clinic that offers free services to individuals in Saskatoon.

“The more I’ve worked with clients with dementia, the more I’ve seen how much it impacts their family and friends,” said Haugrud. “I like to give them answers to what’s going on and what’s going to happen next.”

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Anne-Marie Hickey is a student intern for the U of S research communications office. Visit www.usask/research for more stories of student research.

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