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UMD undergrads build new tools to diagnose Alzheimer’s

UMD undergrads build new tools to diagnose Alzheimer’s. (ABC7)

A team of undergraduate students at the University of Maryland has won the top prize in a National Institutes of Health competition focused on biomedical design. The students are hoping to revolutionize how doctors diagnose Alzheimer's disease. And they're only sophomores.

“It's really a new approach and a powerful approach that could lead to some real solutions in the future,” said UMD Bioengineering Department chair John Fisher.

The seven UMD students have been honored with a $20,000 prize from NIH for their work developing low-cost diagnostic tools. They say their headset and computer software can identify brainwave patterns associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Team captain Dhruv Patel said, “Alzheimer’s diagnostics [usually] occur maybe two years after these clinical symptoms are presented to a doctor. And by then, these plaques have already developed and the disease is moving from early to middle stage.”

Patel and his teammates believe their technology could change that. They believe, because it's more affordable than an MRI, maybe it could be more common and part of routine screening, resulting in earlier diagnoses and drug treatment.

“So during a regular check-up - maybe once you're 55 or older - you could take three or four minutes out of a doctor's office visit and check yourself up,” said Christopher Look.

“Alzheimer’s can manifest in your brain up to ten years before any symptoms are shown," said teammate Megha Guggari. “If we're able to diagnose this in the earlier stages, maybe we could send patients to clinical trials so we can accelerate research and try to find an actual treatment maybe in the future.”

The team built a prototype headset using 3D printed parts with a microcontroller attached to the back which connects to a blue tooth USB port feeding into a laptop.

“Right now, we only have one prototype which actually only fits one person,” Guggari said.

The headset hardware was designed by OpenBCI, an open source Brain Computer Interface company that manufactures parts for portable EEGs.

The team is now using the big cash prize from NIH to build more headsets. They're also forming an LLC, applying for a patent, collaborating with hospitals and pursuing clinical trials.

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