Virtual reality (VR) can identify early Alzheimer’s disease more accurately than existing cognitive tests, new research suggests.
The study by researchers at the University of Cambridge and UCL builds on the discovery of what amounts to the brain’s own ‘satnav’ system. UCL’s Professor John O’Keefe was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2014 for ‘discoveries of cells that constitute a positioning system in the brain’.
Key to this is a region of the brain known as the entorhinal cortex, which is one of the first regions to be damaged in Alzheimer’s disease. However, the pen-and-paper cognitive tests used in clinics to help diagnose the condition are unable to test for navigation difficulties.
In a trial involving 45 patients with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), the participants undertook a navigation test while wearing a VR headset – a task that requires the entorhinal cortex to be functioning properly.
MCI can be an indication of early Alzheimer’s, but can also be caused by other conditions such as anxiety or normal ageing. As such, establishing the cause of MCI is key in determining whether patients are at risk of developing dementia, the university explained.
Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) samples were taken from the patients to look for biomarkers of Alzheimer’s, with 12 testing positive.
All of the patients with MCI performed worse on the navigation task than 41 age-matched healthy controls. Those with positive CSF markers – indicating the presence of Alzheimer’s disease, thus placing them at risk of developing dementia – performed worst of all.
And according to the researchers, the VR test was better at differentiating between these low- and high-risk MCI patients than existing tests considered the gold standard for the diagnosis of early Alzheimer’s.
The use of new technologies in healthcare, including VR, is likely to accelerate with the next wave of internet connectivity. Read our Next-generation connectivity report to see how organisations are preparing for the opportunities 5G will bring.