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Collaboration examines early detection of dementia

The Daily Reflector - 9/10/2017

A faster and non-invasive way to identify dementia in senior citizens just might come out of Goldsboro through a collaboration between East Carolina University researchers.

ECU’s College of Engineering and Technology, with assistance from ECU’s College of Nursing, is studying whether a proposed technology platform can help doctors pinpoint whether a patient has mild cognitive impairment that can lead to dementia and Alzheimer’s. The platform uses existing open-source software and electroencephalogram — EEG — testing to capture the brainwaves of research subjects who have Alzheimer’s or dementia or who don’t show symptoms.

Using a skull cap with 16 electrodes that detect brainwave signals, which are fed into a computer for further analysis, researchers can administer a visual test to see how fast and strong a patient’s preconscious reaction is to seeing a familiar human face, an unfamiliar human face and a watch face.

Sunghan Kim, assistant professor of engineering, is the lead investigator of the research. He is hoping the data collected will show the recognition discrepancies that could ultimately lead to early detection capabilities, such as the platform he’s currently testing.

“We want to compare the brain’s response to the familiar face versus a watch face,” Kim said. “Later, I can analyze the data and see what part of the brain is functioning or not functioning, based on the placement of the electrodes.”

According to the Alzheimer’s Association website, an estimated 5.5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease and the number is rapidly increasing. One in 10 people over 65 suffer from it. Plus, approximately 200,000 individuals under age 65 have younger-onset Alzheimer’s.

In North Carolina, the number of citizens diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is expected to grow more than 31 percent between 2017 and 2025.

Current Alzheimer’s testing relies on two methods: the Montreal Cognitive Assessment test, which is a standard questionnaire to assess various aspects of cognitive functions, and an MRI, which can help with diagnosis. These tools confirm whether or not a patient has Alzheimer’s or dementia.

Once out of the research phase, a goal of the platform is to give physicians a new tool to help them diagnose or confirm the disease more quickly. According to Kim, having this capability will allow patients to begin treatment to stave off the illness and will help their families prepare for the inevitable.

As part of Kim’s research, Rubi Merino, a graduate student in nursing, is doing grant-funded work with patients in a geriatric program at the Goshen Medical Center in Goldsboro.

Merino recruits and screens patients who are 55 or older to see if they would be ideal candidates for Kim’s testing. She thinks Kim’s research could be of great benefit to physicians — and their patients — who live in rural communities.

“Usually primary care providers in rural North Carolina, rural areas are not properly trained to … diagnose them (patients with Alzheimer’s or dementia),” said Merino. “What happens is this person has to be referred out to a neurologist who will do a series of tests, which takes a few appointments with the neurologist before saying ‘you’re diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.’”

To date, Kim has captured data from 20 people. The goal is to have 120 subjects participating in the research, which he said  should be complete within two years.

“Once I get to 120, I can make a statistically meaningful conclusion on the brainwave difference between MCI and healthy patients,” said Kim.

Then, he added, the data set will be used to develop a diagnostic tool that utilizes advanced machine-learning techniques.

“Ultimately, this system can be deployed to rural medical centers,” Kim said.

Oceanographer to visit ECU

Robert Ballard, the oceanographer who discovered the final resting place of the R.M.S. Titanic in 1985, will visit ECU at 7 p.m. Thursday in Wright Auditorium.

Ballard kicks off the 2017-18 season of the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences Voyages of Discovery Series, and will discuss “Human History Under Water.”

Throughout his career, Ballard has tracked down numerous significant shipwrecks, including the German battleship Bismarck, the lost fleet of Guadalcanal, the U.S. aircraft carrier Yorktown (sunk during the WWII Battle of Midway) and John F. Kennedy’s boat, PT-109.

However, Ballard believes his most important discoveries were hydrothermal vents and “black smokers” in the Galapagos Rift and East Pacific Rise in 1977 and 1979, along with the exotic life forms living off the energy of the Earth through a process now known as chemosynthesis. In addition, he spent 30 years at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, where he helped develop telecommunications technology that allows hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren to accompany him from afar on undersea explorations around the globe each year.

Ballard is a National Geographic Society Explorer-In-Residence, a member of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, and president of the Ocean Exploration Trust.

In 2001, Ballard returned to the Graduate School of Oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, where he currently serves as a tenured professor of oceanography, director of the Center for Ocean Exploration, and director of the Institute for Archaeological Oceanography.

Tickets for Ballard’s Premier Speaker event are $25. Other event tickets for the season range from $15-$20. A season ticket package is available for $60. Tickets may be requested through the ECU Central Ticket Office by calling 1-800-ECU-ARTS (1-800-328-2787) or by visiting

For additional information about the Voyages series, visit


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