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How Data Scientists Are Revolutionizing Our Approach to Alzheimer’s Disease   How Data Scientists Are Revolutionizing Our Approach to Alzheimer’s Disease  

What if healthcare professionals could more quickly detect neurological conditions just by listening to a patient’s voice? Hear how data scientist Bryan J. Hansen, Ph.D., and his colleagues at Johnson & Johnson are bringing that bold concept to life.

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We’re using data science and digital tools to understand not only patients’ disease states but what’s meaningful to them because we believe we can literally change the course of their lives.

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Alzheimer’s disease affects approximately 6.5 million Americans, roughly one in nine adults age 65 and older. You’re probably familiar with its early symptoms: problems with memory, language and thinking, for example. But you might not know that researchers believe these symptoms stem from genetic and molecular changes that occur in the brain decades earlier.

“Difficulty with verbal recall—the breadth or range of words you use in even a simple conversation, or the level of detail you go into when describing something—is one of the earliest clinical manifestations of Alzheimer’s disease,” Bryan explained. “You might be surprised at what these changes in speech can tell us.”

But he pointed out that it depends on who’s listening.

“There are several subtle aspects of speech that the human ear usually doesn’t pick up—changes in pitch and volume, for example, or pauses between words and phrases—that can be meaningful if we want to understand the onset or progression of Alzheimer’s disease,” Bryan said.

So he and his team, in collaboration with external partners, developed a tool that gives patients simple prompts like:

  • “Please describe what you see happening in this picture.”
  • Following a list of 15 spoken words: “Tell me all the words that you can remember from the previous list.”

“It’s sort of like a conversation with the patient,” Bryan said, “except that in the course of about 15 minutes, we’re able to pick up almost 85 different speech-based linguistic and analytic features of the patient’s response, all of which then get fed into relationship-correlation analysis with the clinical measures that were also captured, so we’re able to see how specific features of speech correlate with imaging biomarkers or blood tests, for example. With algorithms and sophisticated analytics, data enables us to make connections, find patterns and draw conclusions that we couldn’t otherwise.”

Such connections and patterns could allow interventions to occur earlier going forward.

There may be significant implications for research and clinical trials, too. Traditionally, detecting Alzheimer’s disease requires clinicians to look at the brain through medical imaging, meaning patients must be on-site with trained medical technicians and tailored equipment. Having an effective pre-screening process to determine if patients meet the requirements for an Alzheimer’s disease clinical trial, in that context, could be a game-changer.

Bryan, for one, is optimistic.

“There’s a tremendous opportunity to connect and correlate this type of data with more traditional clinical methods of diagnosing and monitoring the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, which we hope could lead to earlier detection and possibly intervention down the line,” he said. “That’s why we’re applying these innovative methods involving data science, signal processing, statistics, machine learning, predictive analytics and more.”

Of course, innovative uses of data science are being applied elsewhere: ensuring that your packages arrive on time, for example, or that the right video recommendations appear in your streaming queue. But the outcomes we’re driving at Johnson & Johnson fundamentally set us apart.

“We’re using data science and digital tools to understand not only patients’ disease states but what’s meaningful to them because we believe that if we can intervene and connect with our patients early enough, we can literally change the course of their lives,” Bryan said.

Your Unique Skills Can Help Shape the Future of Health

Ready to join Bryan and apply your unique skill set to help bring breakthrough healthcare innovation to life? If so, we can’t wait to meet you! Whether you’re interested in data science internships, co-ops, leadership development programs or full-time roles, take a moment to explore all of the ways you can join our team today.

Be sure to sign up for our global talent community, too. It’s an easy way to stay in touch, learn more about our culture of innovation and even get updates about jobs that might interest you in the future.

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