A wearable headband that could detect Alzheimer'sShare on Pinterest
Researchers developed a headband that could help detect signs of Alzheimer’s during sleep. Photo courtesy of The University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus
  • Alzheimer’s disease affects thinking and brain function. It can lead to significant declines in independence and quality of life.
  • Researchers are still seeking how to best detect Alzheimer’s disease.
  • A recent study found that measuring specific brainwave patterns and their relationship during sleep may help early detect Alzheimer’s disease, even before symptoms are present.

Alzheimer’s disease is a condition that still has many components we don’t understand. Research on how to detect Alzheimer’s disease early is still ongoing.

A recent study looked at how certain brainwave patterns correlated with other indicators of Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers found that a simple wearable device to measure the brain’s electrical activity effectively detected distinct patterns that may indicate Alzheimer’s disease.

The study was published in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association and shows promise in easy ways to detect Alzheimer’s disease early.

Researchers of the new study wanted to examine a method that may help with early detection of Alzheimer’s disease when there are none to minimal symptoms.

T​his study was cross-sectional and included 205 older adults. Researchers used data from a single-channel sleep electroencephalogram (EEG) to look at electrical signals in the brain. Participants had to wear the devices on their foreheads during sleep for at least three nights.

Study author Dr. Brice McConnell, PhD, assistant professor of neurology and Director of the Sleep Research Program at the University of Colorado Alzheimer’s and Cognition Center, offered some more explanation on the method they used:

“Our method focuses on detecting brainwave patterns that occur during memory processing functions in deep sleep and using these brainwaves to understand whether there are problems in the brain’s memory components.”

Researchers then looked at how the data from the EEG readings aligned with other indicators of Alzheimer’s disease, including the presence of amyloid and cognitive impairment. They were able to identify distinct brainwave pattern features that correlated with other indicators of Alzheimer’s disease.

“There are changes in the brain’s memory components that occur many years prior to developing neurological problems such as Alzheimer’s disease, and our research was able to detect these very early changes in the brainwaves of sleep. We were also able to detect brainwave changes that occur when someone is experiencing very early stages of mild cognitive impairment, which often occurs prior to developing dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease.”

— Dr. Brice McConnell, PhD, study author

N​on-study author Keiland Cooper PhD, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine, also commented with his thoughts on the study:

“While a relatively subtle effect, the authors did find that the timing and frequency of theta bursts in relation to the sleep spindles did correlate with cognitive impairment,” Dr. Cooper told MNT.

“This hints that cognitive dysfunction may be potentially underscored by deficits in how neural circuits communicate with each other, and highlights the importance of studying neural dynamics during disease. However, before any clinical translations can be conducted, the study should be replicated further, and the proposed mechanisms investigated deeper,” he added.

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a disorder that impacts the brain. It gets progressively worse and most often affects older adults.

People with Alzheimer’s can experience declines in memory, judgment, and communication ability. This can lead to decreased independence and increased risk for declines in health.

I​t ultimately causes changes to the brain, including the buildup of amyloid plaques.

Damages can occur in critical areas of the brain, including the parts of the brain that affect memory and people’s ability to reason and interact with others normally.

Early detection of Alzheimer’s can help with the planning of care and increase the effectiveness of medications and other treatment options.

A person diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease early on may be able to maintain their independence and functioning for a longer period of time. Early diagnosis among the population can also help reduce financial strain on the healthcare system.

The study does have certain limitations. Participants were part of a specific longitudinal cohort, making it difficult to generalize the results.

The small number of differences among participants may also have affected the study’s findings. The study does not establish a causal relationship between factors. Some authors reported potential conflicts of interest.

There were limitations in data collection, such as researchers only looking at one night of at-home sleep apnea data.

While the EEG device used allows for simplicity, there may be limitations in using this method, including the risk of not capturing certain brain activity. The nature of the study also did not allow for long-term data collection, something that future research could include.

Further research is warranted to understand how EEG measurements align with cognitive function and other testing methods.

Dr. McConnell noted the following areas for continued research:

“Our research demonstrates that brainwave patterns can be used to monitor brain health and to detect very early signs of Alzheimer’s disease, but the method requires more work to increase the reliability of the detection,” he stated.

“We are also working on the use of this method to predict who will develop cognitive symptoms and their respective timelines for progression of neurological problems.”

Overall, the results indicate the potential for at-home use to monitor brain changes in the future.

“The goal of this research is to introduce brain health monitoring techniques in devices accessible to the general public, much like how smartwatches and fitness trackers currently monitor heart health and other medical conditions. However, it might still take several years before they become widely available. There is still a fair amount of work that remains to refine the technique and design user-friendly devices that integrate this capability.”

— Dr. Brice McConnell, PhD, study author