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Simple Drawing Lead to Early Detection of Cognitive Diseases

Cover image courtesy of UKessay.

Dana Penney, one of the co-founders of Waltham-based Digital Cognition Technologies, knows that early detection of diseases is the key to preventing and treating them. But Penney, the Director of Neuropsychology at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center, saw many years ago that there was no real way to test for cognitive diseases before her patients were showing debilitating symptoms.

Dana Penney | Photo courtesy of Digital Cognition Technologies

Dana Penney | Photo courtesy of Digital Cognition Technologies

“Many of my patients would come in and say they had some difficulty . . . in thinking,” Penney says. “And yet when I tested them on gold standard neurological tests, they came within the normal limits. Sometimes we would have to wait years until they showed impairment.”

That’s why Penney was intrigued when ten years ago her colleague Randall Davis, a computer science professor at MIT, told her about research he was doing in sketch recognition — the ability for computers to read hand-drawn diagrams. “I’d come across a digitizing ballpoint pen [in my research], which could track what people were drawing in real time,” Davis explained.

Penney saw this digitizing ballpoint pen as an opportunity to test people’s cognitive skills. She explained that you could capture a large amount of data by asking people to draw simple designs and then tracking where they were pausing, what was taking them longer to think about, and what parts of the design were more difficult for them. “[It] seemed a great opportunity to capture the subtle cognitive changes that my patients were talking about, that I could observe but could not measure,” Penney said.

Randall Davis | Photo courtesy of Digital Cognition Technologies

Randall Davis | Photo courtesy of Digital Cognition Technologies

For ten years, Davis and Penney conducted research on using the digitizing ballpoint pen to measure subtle cognitive changes and deteriorations. Then, about 18 months ago, Davis met up with his old friend Phil Cooper and explained the idea to him. Cooper, who has an entrepreneurial and private equity background, loved the idea. “What [Davis] and [Penney] had spent ten years perfecting addresses one of the biggest medical issues that affects the population right now,” Cooper said. “And what everybody has needed but nobody has had is [the ability] to detect these problems before symptoms are showing. These conditions exist before they get bad enough that anyone notices.”

And so the three of them founded Digital Cognition Technologies, which aims to make this type of test a medical standard. As Cooper says, the earlier you can identify the problem, the earlier you can intervene. “If you think about going to a doctor for a normal check up every year, what happens?,” Cooper asks. “You get your blood pressure taken with a device that measures your blood pressure . . . You may have blood taken, and it comes back with all sorts of measurements in the blood . . . But they having nothing in the doctor’s office to see how your thinking is doing.”

Penney agrees wholeheartedly “As one of our colleagues has coined it: cognition is a vital sign,” she says. “Cognition is one of the few medical maladies that one has to complain about before a doctor even tries to check it out.”

Currently DCT’s earliest adopters are in the pharmaceutical field. As Cooper explains, many drug companies are looking to develop drugs that help treat Alzheimer’s and other Dementia-related diseases. DCT can help them find appropriate people to test by seeing which patients are showing the beginnings of cognitive deterioration. Their test, called the DCTclockTM test, is inexpensive, non-invasive, and takes only two minutes for a patient to complete.

But the founders of DCT believe that their technology will have far-reaching impacts. “Everyone at the company is there because we largely want to make a difference,” Penney says. “We take this very personally, and we really want to make and enable people on the frontline to be able to assess someone who looks apparently healthy and make it seamless and easy for them to do it. Because we think it’s going to make a difference.”

Casey Nugent

Casey Nugent

    Casey Nugent is an editorial intern for MedTech Boston. She’s currently working on her BFA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College in Boston. Outside of working at MedTech Boston, Casey enjoys drinking coffee, going to the theater, goofing around with friends, and hanging out with dogs.

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