The Grapevine

Alzheimer’s Diagnosis: Can Virtual Reality Help Diagnose Disease?

A clinical trial that successfully used virtual reality (VR) devices to detect the onset of mild cognitive impairment (MCI) has set scientists on the path to developing smartphone apps based on these results.

Alzheimer's is the most common type of dementia. On the other hand, MCI is an early stage of dementia. Some people with MCI do not develop Alzheimer's disease, however.

Researchers from the University College London (UCL) and the University of Cambridge, both in the United Kingdom, are working to develop apps for smartphones and smartwatches that detect early signs of Alzheimer's and track changes in a patient’s everyday activities.

"We live in a world where mobile devices are almost ubiquitous, and so app-based approaches have the potential to diagnose Alzheimer's disease at minimal extra cost and at a scale way beyond that of brain scanning and other current diagnostic approaches,” said Dr. Dennis Chan, Ph.D. who led the team that published a study to this effect in the journal Brain.

Their study showed that VR might be more accurate than standard tests in assessing dementia. They suggested that VR might also play a crucial role in monitoring Alzheimer's.

Dementia is a general term to describe an impairment of a person’s cognitive functions such as memory, thinking and communication. The cognitive decline associated with dementia is progressive.

Doctors worldwide have been recently looking into the value of new technologies such as VR in assessing dementia. A new study from Cambridge University found that VR might be more accurate than standard tests in this regard.

Dementia directly attacks the entorhinal cortex of the human brain. The entorhinal cortex is vital to a person being able to navigate or move around and not get lost. It’s also one of the first regions of the brain damaged by Alzheimer's.

Current cognitive tests, however, cannot test for navigation difficulties. This was the challenge overcome by a team of researchers at the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at Cambridge University in collaboration with Prof. Neil Burgess at UCL. The fruit of their combined labor was a VR navigation test.

The study involved 95 volunteers. Researchers took samples of the volunteers’ cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) to look for biomarkers of Alzheimer's disease in people with MCI. Twelve of the participants tested positive. Overall, those with MCI performed worse on the VR navigation test than those without MCI.

The study showed that people with MCI with positive CSF markers performed worse than those with negative CSF markers. Also, the VR navigation test was more effective in differentiating between people with MCI at low and high risk of dementia than standard tests.

"These results suggest a VR test of navigation may be better at identifying early Alzheimer's disease than tests we use at present in the clinic and in research studies," Chan said.

Chan added that the brain cells responsible for navigation are similar in rodents and humans. This means testing navigation could allow scientists to overcome this roadblock in Alzheimer's drug trials and help translate basic science discoveries into clinical use.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates more than 50 million people around the world suffer from dementia. Doctors diagnose dementia in some 10 million people every year. Of this total, 60 percent to 70 percent of these new diagnoses detect Alzheimer's disease.

Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s Image Flickr/hapal

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