Alzheimer’s disease is diagnosed on the basis of a combination of subjective and objective reports of cognitive decline involving memory tests administered in a clinic. These tests are prone to different biases, including assessment anxiety, yet also require verbal and written communication abilities, making them ineffective.
Identification of Alzheimer’s at an early stage could help doctors make a proper decision. The current diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease typically occurs late in the progression of the disease.
Scientists at the University of Bath are pioneering a revolutionary approach to early Alzheimer’s disease. Their approach involves measuring brain activity through an EEG cap when participants look at a series of flashing images on a computer for over two minutes.
The approach was effective at picking up small, subtle changes in brain waves, which occur when a person remembers an image. Significantly, it is entirely passive. It means the person doing the test doesn’t need to understand the task or respond and may not even be aware of their memory response.
The team behind the ‘Fastball EEG’ technology says the approach is cheap, portable, and relies on pre-existing technology already available in hospitals, making it easily scalable.
Lead researcher and cognitive neuroscientist Dr. George Stothart of the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath, explains: “Fastball offers a genuinely novel way of measuring how our brain is functioning. The person being assessed doesn’t need to understand the test or even respond; they watch a screen of flashing images, and by the way, we manipulate the images that appear, we can learn an enormous amount about what their brain is or is not able to do.”
“The tests we currently use to diagnose Alzheimer’s miss the first 20 years of the disease, which means we are missing huge opportunities to help people. For decades now, we have had tools in scientific research that have been able to probe how the brain is working, but we have never leaped a viable clinical tool for the objective assessment of cognition. We hope that Fastball maybe that leap.”
“We are at a fascinating stage in its development. We are testing the tool in earlier and earlier stages of Alzheimer’s and expanding the type of brain function it can measure to include language and visual processing. This will help us to understand not only Alzheimer’s but also the many other less common forms of dementia.”
“Ultimately, the Holy Grail of a tool like this would be a dementia screening tool used in middle age for everyone, regardless of symptoms, in the same way, we test for high blood pressure. We are a long way from that, but this is a step towards that goal.”
Mark Poarch, chief executive of BRACE, added: “We were delighted to be able to fund Dr. Stothart’s research, which has exciting potential. It could result in an early diagnostic tool with benefits for innumerable people and help turn the tide against dementia. More generally, we have seen in the last year what happens when the world ploughs resources into medical research to find a vaccine for a dangerous virus, and we now need to give dementia researchers the resources they need to achieve comparable breakthroughs.”
Dr. Stothart and colleagues will soon start work on a significant £100,000 longitudinal study of early dementia funded by the Academy of Medical Sciences. The study will involve testing patients with Mild Cognitive Impairment using the new Fastball tool. Mild Cognitive Impairment is, for some patients, the first sign of Alzheimer’s. Still, crucially for many, it is not, and determining who will progress to Alzheimer’s could move diagnosis earlier by up to five years. Find out more about the project.
Shortly, the researchers hope that Fastball EEG could help lower the age of diagnosis by up to five years. Longer-term, they say it may offer opportunities to expand this further.
- George Stothart et al. A passive and objective measure of recognition memory in Alzheimer’s disease using Fastball memory assessment. DOI: 10.1093/brain/awab154