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Could giving the elderly avatars help diagnose Alzheimer’s?

Could giving the elderly avatars help diagnose Alzheimer’s?
31st August 2017

The elderly may not be the first people you think of when considering uses for virtual reality, but that could be about to change. Researchers believe that equipping this demographic with avatars and sending them off on virtual adventures could be the future of diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease.

Scientists from University College London (UCL) have been looking into the idea and think it could become common practice in GP surgeries. Each individual would be given a simple headset and asked to participate in a game of Catch the Crab.

This simple method could soon be widespread and replace current techniques, which include mental tests and blood and brain imaging. What virtual reality offers that these methods don't is an insight into the spatial orientation of a patient, which could be the biggest clue to their neurological condition.

Dr Hugo Spiers, the neuroscientist leading the project, told Today: “The aim is to try and create an immersive, intuitive test of spatial orientation, because that’s what we currently lack when we’re trying to make an early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s dementia.”

There is currently no standardised assessment rolled out across the NHS to test for the condition, but that is something the team at UCL is trying to rectify. In order for the proposal to work in practice, thousands of healthy people will need to be persuaded to play the game.

From their results, a healthy benchmark could be established and those who are suspected of being in the early stages of Alzheimer’s tested against it. Early diagnosis is key to treating the condition, as there is currently no known cure once it has taken hold.

All that is needed for the test to be carried out is a virtual reality headset, a download of the game via an app and a swivel chair. The patient is asked to move objects about and react to events they see before them. Data is then collected anonymously by UCL in order to create the tool.

With one in 14 people over the age of 65 having the condition in the UK, Alzheimer’s is a growing problem. Scientists all over the world are working on ways to help prevent its progression, as well as finding a cure, but early warning signs are one of the most important factors when it comes to beating the disease.

The University of Oxford has just started work on a study in conjunction with the Medical Research Council that aims to identify biomarkers associated with Alzheimer’s. These measurable characteristics can occur before any visible symptoms of the disease and could, therefore, hold the key to combatting it.

Simon Lovestone, professor of translational neuroscience at the University of Oxford, said: “We know that Alzheimer’s disease starts long before it is noticed by those with the disease or their doctor.

“Previous studies have shown changes to the brain as early as ten to 20 years before symptoms arise. If we can identify the biomarkers present in this very early stage, we have the chance of developing drugs that treat the disease early, thus preventing damage to people’s memory and thinking.” 

He believes that treatments along these lines could come to market as soon as 2025.