Imaging plus X: multimodal models of neurodegenerative disease

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Purpose of review

This article argues that the time is approaching for data-driven disease modelling to take centre stage in the study and management of neurodegenerative disease. The snowstorm of data now available to the clinician defies qualitative evaluation; the heterogeneity of data types complicates integration through traditional statistical methods; and the large datasets becoming available remain far from the big-data sizes necessary for fully data-driven machine-learning approaches. The recent emergence of data-driven disease progression models provides a balance between imposed knowledge of disease features and patterns learned from data. The resulting models are both predictive of disease progression in individual patients and informative in terms of revealing underlying biological patterns.

Recent findings

Largely inspired by observational models, data-driven disease progression models have emerged in the last few years as a feasible means for understanding the development of neurodegenerative diseases. These models have revealed insights into frontotemporal dementia, Huntington's disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson's disease and other conditions. For example, event-based models have revealed finer graded understanding of progression patterns; self-modelling regression and differential equation models have provided data-driven biomarker trajectories; spatiotemporal models have shown that brain shape changes, for example of the hippocampus, can occur before detectable neurodegeneration; and network models have provided some support for prion-like mechanistic hypotheses of disease propagation. The most mature results are in sporadic Alzheimer's disease, in large part because of the availability of the Alzheimer's disease neuroimaging initiative dataset. Results generally support the prevailing amyloid-led hypothetical model of Alzheimer's disease, while revealing finer detail and insight into disease progression.


The emerging field of disease progression modelling provides a natural mechanism to integrate different kinds of information, for example from imaging, serum and cerebrospinal fluid markers and cognitive tests, to obtain new insights into progressive diseases. Such insights include fine-grained longitudinal patterns of neurodegeneration, from early stages, and the heterogeneity of these trajectories over the population. More pragmatically, such models enable finer precision in patient staging and stratification, prediction of progression rates and earlier and better identification of at-risk individuals. We argue that this will make disease progression modelling invaluable for recruitment and end-points in future clinical trials, potentially ameliorating the high failure rate in trials of, e.g., Alzheimer's disease therapies. We review the state of the art in these techniques and discuss the future steps required to translate the ideas to front-line application.

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