Researchers at WSU in Detroit Awarded $3M to Study Brain Waves to Detect Alzheimer’s, Dementia

Researchers at Detroit’s Wayne State University are testing whether brainwaves could help distinguish between the serious memory loss seen in dementia or Alzheimer’s from the occasional memory lapse.
woman wearing cap for brain wave testing
WSU researchers are using a cap to study whether they can detect dementia or Alzheimer’s through brain waves. // Photo courtesy of Wayne State University

Researchers at Detroit’s Wayne State University are testing whether brainwaves could help distinguish between the serious memory loss seen in dementia or Alzheimer’s from the occasional memory lapse.

The waves are measured through a non-invasive cap that produces an electroencephalogram, or EEG. Currently, only a brain scan such as an MRI can detect the subtle brain changes of early Alzheimer’s or dementia.

Voyko Kavcic, a faculty member of WSU’s Institute of Gerontology, is heading the $3.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to evaluate community-based screening with EEG and also simple computer-based cognitive tests in with and without mild cognitive problems or dementia.

“If this approach works, we will have developed a low-cost, easy-to-administer method for early identification of persons whose memory concerns may be the earliest signs of a continued decline in memory or other cognitive areas and may continue to advance,” Kavcic says.

Over the next five years, the team will study 500 older African-American men and women who complain of memory loss but have not been diagnosed in clinical assessments. African Americans are twice as likely to develop dementia as Caucasians.

Kavcic is collaborating with Dr. Bruno Giordani of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The two will enroll participants in the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center at U-M, which is part of the Michigan Alzheimer’s Disease Center. This will allow all participants to receive medical and neurological screening and basic cognitive tests to confirm the diagnosis found through Voyko’s tests, serving as a double-check on whether the participant has no impairment, mild cognitive impairment, or something more serious.

Recruits must be at least 65, live independently in their own homes or senior housing in the Detroit area, and believe their memory or another aspect of their thinking isn’t working as well as it used to.

The first visit for participants will take four to six hours and includes written tests and a physical and neurological exam. If tests show mild cognitive impairment, the person is sent to the U-M team for additional tests to confirm the diagnosis. Patients without impairment could receive a second visit about three months later for more computerized testing and the EEG. They will receive a $100 gift card for completing both visits. Tests will be repeated twice a year for three years.

“Our pilot study showed that older African Americans accepted the computer testing and EEG very well,” says Kavcic. “The EEG is not painful, but we do use sensors on the scalp. Thick braids can interfere with the sensors, so we try to schedule the visit during a time when braids and other tight hairstyles can be undone to accommodate the cap.”

The study’s goal is to determine which EEG and computer-based measures work best to predict the direction of brain function over three years.

There is no effective treatment for dementia or Alzheimer’s.

“Research has shown that a healthy lifestyle and certain cognitive training can build cognitive reserve and help strengthen the brain against dementia,” says Kavcic. “If you have two persons with mild cognitive impairment, the one with a stronger, more conditioned brain is likely to live longer without impairment that affects daily functioning.”

Those who are interested in volunteering for the study or learning more can contact Kavcic’s research lab at (313) 577-1692 or email Kavcic at

In related news, the Michigan Health Endowment Fund awarded $500,000 to a new initiative at WSU to collect real-time health data down to the neighborhood level, layering it with social determinants of health such as household income, crime statistics, and access to grocery stores.

Population Health Outcomes and Information Exchange, or PHOENIX, will allow researchers, health and human service providers, and nonprofit agencies to tailor health services, design research studies, and evaluate public health programs.

“PHOENIX will change the way we think about population-based health,” says Dr. Phillip Levy, a professor of emergency medicine and assistant vice president of translational research at WSU. He is developing the platform. “This will efficiently identify health needs, provide robust and comprehensive data on risk factors and health outcomes, enable rapid evaluation of intervention effectiveness, and create an opportunity for communities, nonprofits, government agencies, and researchers to join forces in pursuit of a better quality of life for all.”

The grant will support the creation of the technology necessary and build a coalition of governmental, corporate, foundation, community, and academic partners. Partners include Michigan Health Information Exchange, the Detroit Health Department, Wayne County Health, the Veterans and Community Wellness Department, the Wayne State Center for Urban Studies, Data-Driven Detroit, Loveland Technologies, and the Detroit East Medical Control Authority.

WSU has named health equity in Detroit one of its top priorities, supporting research and programming internally and with community partners.

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