AlzU Blog

High School Student Assists with Alzheimer's Research Project at Seminole State

Most researchers who wind up getting published in a scientific journal have an advanced college degree, and many letters behind their name. But, Nikhil Patel, a high school student, challenged the concept that a person needs a PhD to get published. Nikhil created an innovative idea for an electronic tool that may help diagnose cognitive problems very early in life.

Early Detection of AD

Based on the brain’s response to conflicting sensory input, Nikhil designed an iPad app that may be able to detect the likeliness of early stage cognitive decline (a precursor to Alzheimer’s disease), 10 to 20 years earlier than it’s being identified now.  The goal is to use the app as a yearly cognitive performance tool, to see how the score changes over time, and how it’s different from that of a person’s demographic group(such as same sex and age).

Nikhil Patel’s name appeared in the scientific journal next to other researchers who devoted years of study in their respective fields of expertise, most, with PhDs behind their names.  Yet, Nikhil hadn’t even reached legal driving age yet.  How can this happen?

“It’s always shocking” when people realize Nikhil is only 15, said Darin Hughes, the University of Central Florida researcher who co-authored the paper on Alzheimer’s research, while mentoring Nikhil. 

About Nikhil Patel

Nikhil Patel is a high school sophomore at Oviedo High.  His parents are said to have encouraged Nikhil and his sister Sapna (14 years old) to study research science at a local college campus.  The siblings have been taught by their parents to be inquisitive about the world around them; they both have a passion for science which they’ve utilized to impress the experts in the research field. Their father, Sanjay Patel, explained that he taught his kids to ask open-ended questions.  “It was all about the discipline of asking the unanswerable question,” Sanjay said.

Learning About Research

At Seminole State College, in Florida, Nikhil and his sister Sapna, attend a class every other week, about the fundamentals of research.  “They’re excited about science at a young age,” said Seminole State College of Florida professor Maya Byfield. “That’s so powerful. When you get young kids to be excited about science, they never leave it.”  Most of the siblings’ classmates (attending the college research course) are in their 20’s to 40’s.

In the research class, Nikhil learned how to develop a hypothesis, how to use the scientific method, and generally how to do research.  When asked to find other, more experienced scientists to mentor Nikhil, the 15-year-old reached out to UCF researcher, Darin Hughes.  “I’ve worked with a lot of students, everywhere from high school to graduate students,” Hughes said. “These kids [Nikhil and his sister] already have a research agenda laid out. It could be a lifetime full of research—that’s something you don’t always see in PhD students.”

Although Nikhil has made a strong impression on many people, that’s NOT to say the young high school student has not had to face any challenges.  “It’s always a bit different when you stand up and say you’re a sophomore in high school,” Nikhil explained.  But once the initial jitters started to subside, Nikhil went on to explain, “They’re [Nikhil’s classmates] just people, like you,” Nikhil said. “You can get to know them as friends and peers, just like you would in high school.”

Normal Teenage Life

Sanjay Patel, Nikhil’s father, who was involved in a technology company startup, explained that his kids are normal teenagers; they like to go to high school football games and fight at home with each other (much like any other siblings). Nikhil is vice president of his sophomore class.

Nikhil’s App to Detect Risk for Alzheimer’s Disease

Nikhil’s grandmother had Alzheimer’s disease, which inspired the young scientist, who admits to being fascinated by the mix of technology and medicine, to do something about it. 

The app was designed to help screen for head trauma (such as from sports injuries) and for risk of Alzheimer’s disease.  The app displays a video with a closeup of a person mouthing specific sounds or words, then the audio displays something different.  For example, the video may look to speak the word “Fa,” but the sound that is heard is “Ba.”  How soon a person recognizes the discrepancy (and how confident that person is in their answer), may help to detect a problem.

Nikhil’s Future

Nikhil told interviewers he wants to go to Harvard University, just like his brother Neel.  The high school sophomore, plans to study computer science, or perhaps, medicine.  His sister, Sapna, plans to go to Harvard as well, she wants to be a doctor or a research veterinarian.  Judging by what the two have accomplished so far in their young lives, it doesn’t seem that any of their goals are very far from their reach.

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