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Joyita Dutta is an electrical engineer, but the University of Massachusetts Lowell researcher has devoted much of the last decade to helping with a medical quest.

Since 2013, Dutta has used her expertise in image processing and artificial intelligence to aid in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease. Now through a new funding award, the associate professor of electrical and computer engineering has an opportunity to take her work to the next level.

Through the five-year, $2.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, Dutta will be working to develop new models of brain imaging to track the progression of Alzheimer’s.

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Dutta, who runs UMass Lowell’s Biomedical Imaging and Data Science Laboratory, said she and the graduate and postgraduate students who assist her at the facility have long wanted to do the research the grant will now make possible.

“The fact that NIH has funded us for five years to pursue these ideas we’ve had is very exciting for us,” she said of her team.

Dutta, who also works as an instructor at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, said the grant was awarded to MGH, which in turn selected her for the project.

An estimated 5.8 million Americans were living with Alzheimer’s disease in 2020, according to the US Centers for Disease Control.

Dutta’s research will focus on developing a computer model that can predict the buildup in the brain of “tau tangles.” Tau is a protein that assists in stabilizing the brain’s nerve cells, but Dutta said an abnormal form of it can cluster into tangles and has been associated with the cognitive decline found with Alzheimer’s patients.

To create the model, Dutta will use AI to analyze brain scans taken from hundreds of Alzheimer’s patients, provided by the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative, a national program, and the Harvard Aging Brain Study. MGH clinicians will provide advice and assistance for the study.

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“We are trying to learn patterns that are most predictive of future tau buildup in the brain,” Dutta said. Such a model would be particularly helpful, she said, in predicting changes in the brain of a patient who has yet to exhibit clinical manifestations of the disease.

Dutta said initially, the model would be a research tool, but eventually its application could be expanded to track disease progression in subjects taking part in clinical trials for potential Alzheimer’s treatments.

A native of India, Dutta grew up in Kolkata. After receiving a bachelor’s degree from the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur, she came to the United States in 2004. She then earned a masters in science in 2006 and a Ph.D in electrical engineering in 2011, each from the University of Southern California.

In her graduate work, Dutta was exposed to the medical application of image processing, an experience that led to her joining Harvard Medical School and MGH as a research fellow in 2011; she became an instructor in 2013. Dutta said that work has helped her research, “showing me how things work in a purely medical setting.”

Dutta came to UMass Lowell as an assistant professor in 2015, rising to associate professor in 2019.

Jay Weitzen, professor and interim chair of UMass Lowell’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, said by e-mail, “one of my great joys now as a senior faculty [member] is watching young faculty like Joyita Dutta become superstars. We are both proud and pleased with her achievements and look forward to working with her for many years to come. "

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Dutta said UMass Lowell has been an ideal place for her teaching and research, citing in particular her interactions with students. “On a campus you are around an enthusiastic bunch of young minds and that is very energizing,” she said, adding that university leaders “have provided incredible support in helping make all my research happen.”

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.

10noLowell - Joyita Dutta is an electrical engineer and researcher at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. (Imelda Joson/Joson Images)
10noLowell - Joyita Dutta is an electrical engineer and researcher at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. (Imelda Joson/Joson Images)Adrien Bisson