Using VR Navigation Tests to Detect Alzheimer’s Many Years in Advance

A group of researchers is planning to utilize VR in diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease patients much earlier than currently possible. With VR’s ability to test navigational skills of users, these scientists believe that the technology will be optimal for pinpointing those who are more at risk of dementia. Those who do poorly on the test are deemed most likely to develop Alzheimer’s later in life, so these researchers believe.

Being that VR could potentially identify Alzheimer’s candidates much earlier than currently possible, the researchers hope that it will likely become easier in the long term to develop treatments and slow the neurological degeneration these patients experience.

“It is usually thought memory is the first attribute affected in Alzheimer’s,” said Dennis Chan, project leader and neuroscientist based at Cambridge University. “But difficulty with navigation is increasingly recognized as one of the very earliest symptoms. This may predate the onset of other symptoms.”

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Loss of navigational skills was discovered to be tethered to Alzheimer’s disease years ago by Chan and colleagues in multiple centers in the UK. These studies largely involved tablet computers and navigational task-based assessments.

“By pinpointing those who are beginning to lose their navigational skills, we hope to show that we can target people at a much earlier stage of the condition and one day become far more effective in treating them,” said Chan.

Building upon these previous tablet navigational tests, Chan and this research team plan to expand these tests using VR sets that immerse their users into a simulated scenario they must navigate through.

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The team plans to recruit roughly 300 people between ages 40 and 60 will be recruited to take part in this study. Several members of the trial will possess genetic indicators of elevated dementia risk, or will come from a family with history of the disease. The end goal of Chan’s project is to use these navigational VR tests to differentiate who in the study is more likely than others to develop Alzheimer’s.

Specifically, the participants will navigate through several environments in the VR simulation then be asked to recall the details of each.

“We will make a note of those who have particular problems and see if these are the ones who are at higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s,” Chan explained. “The aim of the study is very simple: can we detect changes in brain function before people are aware that they have them?”

An area of the brain known as the entorhinal cortex has recently been identified to be a key component of the neural network that controls navigation. Chan identifies this region as one of the first to go during brain degeneration in Alzheimer’s disease as well.

“The entorhinal cortex is the first brain region to show degeneration when you get Alzheimer’s, and that is where we shall be focusing our research,” said Chan. “If we can develop drugs and administer them earlier, for instance before the disease has spread beyond the entorhinal cortex, then this would have the potential to prevent the onset of dementia.”

Source: The Guardian