Researchers at Cambridge University in the UK are trialling an artificial intelligence system that they believe could spot the signs of dementia after a single brain scan.

The team behind the AI tool say the hope is that it will lead to earlier diagnoses, which could improve outcomes for patients, while it may also help to shed light on their prognoses.

Dr Timothy Rittman, a senior clinical research associate and consultant neurologist at the University of Cambridge, who is leading the study, said the AI system is a “fantastic development”.

“These set of diseases are really devastating for people,” he said. “So when I am delivering this information to a patient, anything I can do to be more confident about the diagnosis, to give them more information about the likely progression of the disease to help them plan their lives is a great thing to be able to do.”

It is expected that in the first year of the trial the AI system, which uses algorithms to detect patterns in brain scans, will be tested in a “real-world” clinical setting on about 500 patients at Addenbrooke’s hospital in Cambridge and other memory clinics across the country.

In pre-clinical tests, it has been able to diagnose dementia, years before symptoms develop, even when there is no obvious signs of damage on the brain scan.

“If we intervene early, the treatments can kick in early and slow down the progression of the disease and at the same time avoid more damage,” said Professor Zoe Kourtzi, of Cambridge University and a fellow of national centre for AI and data science, the Alan Turing Institute. “And it’s likely that symptoms occur much later in life or may never occur.”

Dr Laura Phipps at Alzheimer’s Research UK said Kourtzi was also leading a research project, funded by the charity, that used data from wearable technology to predict diseases like Alzheimer’s 15-20 years earlier than it was currently possible. Phipps added that the application of AI to brain scans might bring benefits.

“To diagnose dementia today, doctors need to rely on the interpretation of brain scans and cognitive tests, often over a period of time,” she said. “Machine learning models such as those being developed by Professor Kourtzi could give doctors greater confidence in interpreting scans, leading to a more accurate diagnosis for patients.”

Phipps added that it is hoped such approaches may eventually help to detect the diseases that cause dementia much earlier. “This would have a huge impact on people with dementia and their families,” she said.