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Training AI to Spot Early Alzheimer’s

Posted on Tuesday, February 13, 2024

An estimated 6.7 million Americans aged 65 and older are living with Alzheimer’s, as reported in 2023 by the Alzheimer’s Association. Emani Hunter, a Pittsburgh ARCS Scholar, is studying Bioengineering to change that. Her research focuses on applying machine learning techniques to analyze MRI image data to aid in early detection and diagnosis of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. But how will she do it?

“We know neurodegenerative diseases are very complex and vary from patient to patient. We analyze a lot of MRI cans from Alzheimer’s patients, and each patient’s brain looks completely different,” Hunter explains. “My overall goal is to help develop these AI tools to help researchers and clinicians make better-informed decisions for early detection and diagnosis.”

Hunter trains her artificial intelligence (AI) to be like a radiologist’s companion. Her model looks at hundreds of MRIs from animals and humans to discover what’s different in the brains. That difference can help researchers and clinicians make a better decision for the patient, mainly if it can spot a difference the human eye cannot.

Implementing this tool could help with early detection of Alzheimer’s but also “has the potential to help improve accuracy and speed in medical diagnoses, aid in patient outcomes, and also help patients receive the necessary targeted treatment they need,” Hunter says.

Merging AI into the medical field is a complex challenge as AI in the medical field can scare people away. Hunter knows, “Doctors are not very trusting of the results, but it’s a really useful tool to improve someone’s workflow in both the research and clinical space.” Hunter knows that once AI and medical data combine, they can create powerful insights to help others.

Helping others is what motivates Hunter to do this specific research. She started working on computational problems surrounding neurological image data during undergraduate internships and wanted to continue the work in her graduate degree. Hunter shares, “I felt as though I would be able to combine my passions and interest in computer science and mental illness, but also try to make an indirect impact in helping improve the wellbeing of others in a way.”

To celebrate her work as a woman in STEM and bring awareness to February’s National Engineering Week and International Day of Women in Science, ARCS asked her what advice she has for women in STEM. “Always remember what matters to you,” she states, “Always remember the why, why you chose to go this route. Always think of your passions and remain self-resilient.” As a woman, self-resiliency is vital to Hunter because “we experience many different obstacles and hardships on our journey in STEM. We must remember the power we have as women. The power to be revolutionary leaders and break down barriers set up by society.”

Hunter is grateful for her resilience and the ARCS Scholar Award, as it “opened many doors for me and allowed me to bring more awareness to my science and research to the general public.” On top of successfully communicating her professional work with a non-academic audience, being a part of ARCS has “opened my eyes to a wide range of diverse research work and science that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to learn about,” concludes Hunter.