ALZHEIMER’S disease, a condition where the patient suffers from memory loss due to brain cell malfunction, is often associated with older people. But younger people can also be affected by this irreversible and progressive degenerative disease.
Adults who are diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) are at high risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia types as they grow older. MCI causes a slight but measurable decline in cognitive abilities, including memory and thinking skills.
To detect any abnormality within the brain, brain imaging techniques such as computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan and electroencephalogram (EEG) are commonly used by doctors and neuroscientists to monitor the activities of the brain.
Functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) technology can also be used to measure the relative concentration of haemoglobin oxygenation in blood vessels of the brain.
The healthcare application is currently being developed by Mimos, the national research and development centre. As a result, a brain imaging tool prototype known as Alzheimer’s Headband has been created.
Possible alternative for MRI
The Alzheimer Headband is a wearable device designed with four optical probe holders which is placed on the forehead of the patient to monitor blood oxygenation related to brain function.
Mimos senior staff researcher Zalhan Md Yusof, who heads the research team, says the device could possibly be used as an alternative to MRI for early MCI screening.
“Some patients, especially those who are claustrophobic, may feel uncomfortable with conventional imaging techniques that require the patient to be enclosed in an MRI machine and exposed to loud sound.
“The Alzheimer Headband, on the other hand, offers many advantages. It is safe, non-invasive, not physically confining and flexible as it allows more movements.
“Besides, it is a non-ionized method, which means it can be used repeatedly. It is also portable and affordable.
“The Alzheimer Headband’s quietness and tolerance of motion artefacts make it ideal for use in adults, infants and children, ” she says.
According to Zalhan, Mimos’ Photonics Technology Lab was the first to promote fNIRS for cognitive and tissue oxygenation study in Malaysia in 2014.
The agency has engaged Universiti Teknologi Mara (UiTM)’s Faculty of Health Science to promote fNIRS application in neuroscience studies through the Malaysia Congress of Radiology, Academy of Medicine of Malaysia.
Mimos also conducted initial clinical studies on old folks from Rumah Seri Kenangan in Cheras where researchers were able to gather data, with approval from the Faculty of Health Science, UiTM Puncak Alam; Faculty of Medicine UiTM Sungai Buloh and Community Welfare Department under the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry.
Zalhan says the development of the Alzheimer Headband allows the lab to come out with a hemodynamic analysis for Alzheimer’s patient which introduces a systematic quantitative approach.
“The current golden standard analysis for Alzheimer’s is still through questionnaires, which is a qualitative approach. Our method using fNIRS equipment quantifies the level of Alzheimer’s degree to classify the dementia classes or categories.
“The quantitative approach is more accurate as it can quantify Alzheimer’s and other dementia severity level compared to the current qualitative method, ” she says.
Based on the wearable fNIR spectroscopy, the team was able to develop an improved process of analysis from raw data to brain tomography image.
Besides UiTM, Mimos’ photonics technology team has started to team up with Universiti Kuala Lumpur (UniKL) and Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia (USIM) to work on the application of fNIR brain imaging for cognitive studies.
“A series of discussions and studies are still ongoing and we hope this collaboration will further improve the application of fNIR brain imaging technique, ” she says.
Internationally, Mimos is collaborating with Artinis Medical Systems, Netherlands, to promote the usage of fNIRS in Neuroscience Cognitive study for Dementia-Alzheimer in Malaysia.
She says Mimos is looking for partners and funds to develop and test the system.
Brain mapping institute
The test equipment in Mimos’ Photonics Technology Lab also covers other tissue oxygenation studies such as muscle analysis. The facility can also be mobilised to other locations.
“We have the potential to become a brain mapping institute for NIR. At present, we are giving access to other research institutes and universities to conduct studies in their related fields.
“Due to the nature of the technology in tissue oxygenation, the facility can also perform muscle analysis for athletes and physiotherapists, and can conduct endurance testing, ” Zalhan says.
Institutions such as the National Sports Council (MSN) and National Sports Institute (ISN) have approached Mimos to use the facilities.
Mimos frequently partners other parties to develop healthcare solutions.
Besides the Alzheimer Headband, the research team has been developing a Bluetooth Low Energy-enabled, handheld device called FloBo, which measures body temperature, pulse rate and oxygen level simultaneously. They are also developing a painless blood glucose monitoring device called GlucoSenz, which is expected to be available in the market by 2020.
Mimos also signed a memorandum of agreement with Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia to use photonics technology in dental applications.