Around 750,000 people in the UK suffer from dementia, marking it as a major public health problem as well as a devastating condition for the individual and their family. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of this disorder, but it may be difficult to distinguish from other diseases and from depression, particularly in the early stages. Work conducted at UCL and other research centres has enabled clinicians to spot changes in brain structure (the size or shape of particular regions) that can help identify Alzheimer’s earlier, and monitor how well drugs to combat it perform in trials.

Since neurodegenerative diseases cause the brain to atrophy, measuring changes in its volume is a useful way to study both the progress of a disease and the effect of treatments. However, the differences tend to be small – shrinking or growing by just a few percent – and so accurate and reliable measurement methods are essential to get accurate and reliable data.

Important improvements to brain volume measurement techniques have been produced by the UCL Centre for Medical Image Computing (CMIC, established jointly between UCL Computer Science and UCL Medical Physics) and the Dementia Research Centre (DRC), making the process more efficient and robust. As a result of this work, fully automated measurement of volumes and rates of atrophy for both the hippocampus and whole brain have been achieved, and it is now possible to compare measurements from different models and settings of scanners against each other with confidence. Due to the reliability of these methods, UCL has provided outcome measures for major studies and international trials with industrial contracts alone worth over £5m, as well as forming part of the successful international Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI) consortium. This group is establishing standards and providing data for the next generation of therapeutic trials in Alzheimer’s disease.

Just one example of how research at UCL Centre for Medical Image Computing could change the world.

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