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Office of News and Information
Johns Hopkins University
3003 N. Charles Street, Suite 100
Baltimore, Maryland 21218-3843
Phone: (410) 516-7160 | Fax (410) 516-5251

March 31, 2003
MEDIA CONTACT: Phil Sneiderman
(410) 516-7907

Undergraduate Uses Complex Math to
Help Predict Dementia

Allison Barker's Statistical Research is Part of Effort to
Detect Early Signs of Alzheimer's

A Johns Hopkins undergraduate is analyzing numbers derived from digital images of the brain, looking for trends that may help doctors identify patients in the very early stages of Alzheimer's disease.

Allison Barker, a 21-year-old senior from Williamsville, N.Y., said her statistical tests indicate that thinning in a part of the brain called the cingulate gyrus is found more often in patients suffering from a type of dementia associated with Alzheimer's.

Allison Barker, here with adviser Carey Priebe, is analyzing numbers derived from digital images of the brain, looking for trends that may help physicians identify early Alzheimer's disease.
Photo by Will Kirk

Barker, a dual major in mathematical sciences and neuroscience, is collaborating with Johns Hopkins faculty members on a paper based on these findings, and the researchers plan to submit the paper soon to a scholarly journal. "These results are very important and exciting," Barker said. "I think it's really amazing that I, as an undergraduate, have been given so much responsibility in an important project like this."

Her research is part of a larger project being conducted at the Center for Imaging Science at Johns Hopkins, directed by Michael I. Miller, a professor of biomedical engineering and of electrical and computer engineering. The center is producing three-dimensional computer models of portions of the brain, based on magnetic resonance images from patients with Alzheimer's Disease and healthy people. By comparing these images, the researchers hope to identify changes in the brain that occur when the disease is in earliest stages, an important window of opportunity for medications that might halt or reverse this degenerative ailment.

Barker's involvement began in the spring of 2002, when her faculty advisor, Carey Priebe, asked her to conduct some statistical analyses needed in the project. Priebe, a professor of mathematical sciences who is affiliated with the Center for Imaging Science, urged Barker to find funding to support her efforts. She applied for a Provost's Undergraduate Research Award. After receiving the award, Barker remained in Baltimore last summer, processing numbers representing the thickness of tissue called gray matter in the cingulate gyrus, a section of the brain that is critical to memory and learning functions.

The task was daunting because each brain segment Barker studied was accompanied by up to 400,000 measurements. "The long-term goal is to build a classifier, a way to use these numbers as a predictive tool to find people who may be in the earliest stages of dementia," she said.

Priebe was available to answer questions and check her results, but he did not try to micro-manage her work, she said. "He was really good about taking a back seat, being there to advise me when I needed it, but giving me the project to run with," Barker said. "I can really feel like I produced this from beginning to end."

Barker, who expects to receive her undergraduate degree from Johns Hopkins in May, plans to spend another year on the project as a paid researcher before enrolling in medical school in the fall of 2004. "I'm very interested in this project and where it's going," she said. "This has been a thrilling experience. That's one of the reasons I came here -- because of the way professors are willing to let you get involved in the research. That's really the best way to learn." Some of her PURA funds will enable Barker to travel to San Francisco in August to discuss her work at a conference of statistics researchers. Although research demanded much of her attention over the past year, Barker also found time to serve as captain of the Johns Hopkins women's varsity fencing team.

On Tuesday, April 1, Steven Knapp, university provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, will host the ninth annual Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards ceremony, which will honor the 41 winners who conducted their projects in the summer and fall of 2002. Since 1993, about 40 students each year have received PURA grants of up to $2,500 to conduct original research, some results of which have been published in professional journals. The awards, funded through a donation from the Hodson Trust, are an important part of the university's commitment to research opportunities for undergraduates.

The Johns Hopkins University is recognized as the country's first graduate research university, and has been in recent years the leader among the nation's research universities in winning federal research and development grants. The opportunity to be involved in important research is one of the distinguishing characteristics of an undergraduate education at Johns Hopkins.

The Provost's Undergraduate Research Awards program provides one of these research opportunities, open to students in each of the university's four schools with full-time undergraduates: the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, the Whiting School of Engineering, the Peabody Conservatory and the School of Nursing.

Color photos of the researchers available; Contact Phil Sneiderman.

Related Links:
Johns Hopkins Center for Imaging Science
Carey Priebe's Web Page
Johns Hopkins Department of Mathematical Sciences

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