Massive study aims to pinpoint how to prevent brain illnesses

The Cleveland Clinic is embarking on an initiative to collect image and health information from 200,000 participants to catch diseases before symptoms occur.

The Cleveland Clinic is beginning a study to collect data using advanced technology to try to find markers indicating the risks of neurological diseases – such as Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, strokes and more – before symptoms occur.

Called the Cleveland Clinic Brain Study, the initiative intends to collect data from as many as 200,000 neurologically healthy individuals over a 20-year period. Researchers will use the information as a basis for identifying brain disease biomarkers and targets.

The study, which will include organizations from around the world, will be looking to identify potential neurological problems before issues become evident, which will aid in preventing and curing disorders.

The need for pre-emptive understanding of these disorders is huge – one in every six people worldwide has a neurological disease, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, stroke or multiple sclerosis. While great strides have been made in treatment, there is scant understanding about predicting who will become sick, and little is known about stopping the progression of these diseases.

The study, led by researchers at the Cleveland Clinic’s Neurological Institute, will begin at the organization’s main campus, and over time will expand to other Cleveland Clinic sites,

The scope of the study, as well as the range of data being collected, will require vast computing capabilities, data storage and the ability to integrate various forms of patient information together to enable researchers to seek commonalities in the data.

Brain MRI from the first participant in a study beginning at the Cleveland Clinic. Photo by Lisa DeJong

The initial phase of the study is expected to enroll 10,000 volunteers over the first five years. These participants will include adults 50 years and older with no known neurological disorder or neurologically healthy adults over the age of 20 who have a close relative who has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

Participants, who don’t have to be current patients of the organization, will have yearly assessments, including neurological examination, bloodwork, eye retina scans, brain MRI imaging, EEG and sleep studies, and other cognitive function tests.

Researchers expect to use a variety of advanced computing tools to collect data points from the volunteers. The premise of the study is that the collected data “will form a trend line to capture the genetic risk factors, and invisible molecular, structural, neurophysiological and cognitive/memory changes in the brain over time,” an announcement noted.

Researchers then will use advanced analytics to help discover anticipatory indications of potential disease that will help guide future indications of diagnostic and preventative medicines.

“By researching healthy, at-risk individuals over the course of 20 years, we will learn what is happening to the brain and body before a neurological disease is diagnosed,” said Imad Najm, MD, co-leader of the research initiative and vice chair of the Neurological Institute for Strategy and Development.

“We’re building a foundation to screen one person at a time – potentially with something as routine as a blood test – to diagnose brain disease on the spot and prevent it from happening altogether,” added Najm, who is also director of Cleveland Clinic’s Charles Shor Epilepsy Center and the Joseph H. and Ell B. Thomas Endowed Chair in Epilepsy.

“Our hope is to change the course of neurodegeneration, with the long-term goal of curing diseases in their earliest stages, years before symptoms are even seen,” said Andre Machado, MD, co-lead of the project and chair of the Neurological Institute.

More information about the initiative can be found here.

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