Science

Pioneering test could increase early diagnosis of Alzheimer's, say researchers

Alzheimer's is the underlying cause of approximately 60% of dementia and estimates suggest the disease costs the UK economy around £26 billion a year.

A pioneering EEG test could dramatically increase early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, according to researchers.

Scientists have developed a two-minute passive-test called Fastball EEG that measures people’s brain waves in response to a series of images and could help diagnose dementia earlier.

Participants look at a series of flashing images on a computer screen while their brain waves are measured using an EEG cap.

Patients wear the wireless EEG cap and complete tasks on a laptop (Nic Delves Broughton/University of Bath/PA)
A participant wears a wireless EEG cap while completing tasks on a laptop (Nic Delves Broughton/University of Bath/PA)

Researchers at the University of Bath said the technique was highly effective at picking up small, subtle changes in brain waves which occur when a person remembers an image.

They said it was also passive, meaning the person doing the test did not need to understand the task or respond and may not even be aware of their memory response.

The Fastball EEG system was cheap, portable and relied on pre-existing technology already available in hospitals, the researchers said.

They were now beginning to use Fastball EEG in a study of the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s disease at Southmead Hospital in Bristol.

Alzheimer’s is the underlying cause of approximately 60% of dementia and estimates suggest the disease costs the UK economy around £26 billion a year.

The disease is currently diagnosed using a combination of subjective and objective reports of cognitive decline, often involving memory tests.

Lead researcher Dr George Stothart examines the results of brain scans (Nic Delves Broughton/University of Bath/PA)
Lead researcher Dr George Stothart examines brain scans (Nic Delves Broughton/University of Bath/PA)

The researchers said earlier diagnosis could help with the prescribing of drugs and also allow lifestyle changes to slow progression of the disease.

They hope that Fastball EEG could help lower the age of diagnosis by up to five years.

Lead researcher and cognitive neuroscientist Dr George Stothart said: “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 simply 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 made the leap to a viable clinical tool for the objective assessment of cognition. We hope that Fastball may be that leap.

“We are at a really exciting 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 not only understand 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.”

The research was funded by Alzheimer’s charity BRACE.

– The paper, A Passive And Objective Measure Of Recognition Memory In Alzheimer’s Disease Using Fastball Memory Assessment, is published in the journal Brain.

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