Predicting Alzheimer’s Disease
Although I may be a little late on the trend of national #AlzheimersAwarenessMonth in January, it’s never too late to talk about something with such a huge impact on our population (much like the #BellLetsTalk mental health campaign, which I’m also behind on).
In case you’re not familiar with Alzheimer’s Disease, it is a neurodegenerative disease that results in the death of brain cells and permanent neurological damage. It can sometimes be confusing to understand the difference between Alzheimer’s and dementia since they are often used simultaneously or interchangeably. Here’s the difference: dementia refers to a loss of cognitive function, that is more severe that the normal events of aging, such as forgetfulness. The occurrence of brain cell death from Alzheimer’s often results in dementia, making is one of the leading causes.
It is important to understand the difference because while dementia alone can result in loss of memory, difficulty with speech & movement, changes in behaviour, and the loss of reasoning abilities, dementia from Alzheimer’s is fatal.
Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, however some preventative practices have shown evidence of delaying or reducing the likelihood of onset. Some treatments exist that reduce the severity of symptoms, however these treatments are only effective if introduced early on in the progression of the disease.
A key challenge to tackling Alzheimer’s disease is diagnosis. Qualitative tests of cognitive function are extensive and rather subjective. Definitive tests for the disease are invasive and costly. An article titled “Advance Warning” in a recent issue of Scientific American features Neurotrack, a biomedical device company driven to change the game of Alzheimer’s diagnostics.
“There’s no cheap, fast, noninvasive test that can identify people at risk of Alzheimer’s.” -Brad Dolin, CTO of Neurotrack (taken from Scientific American, February 2015)
Luckily for us, Neurotrack has tapped into a way to test for Alzheimer’s that seems to be everything current diagnostics are lacking. Neurotrack’s technology is based on an individual’s attentional preference for novel information based on memory. The technology is simple: a computer based program that tracks eye movements. Research has shown that people are inclined to direct their attention to objects or information they do not recognize or remember. If there is damage to the hippocampus (a memory centre of the brain), as is characteristic of Alzheimer’s, an individual will not show a significant preference for new objects or information.
Not only is Neurotrack promising for the area of diagnostics, but it can also prove helpful to Alzheimer’s pharmaceutical development in improving participant selection for clinical trials. The Neurotrack test is currently unavailable for public use, however the company is planning to further validate their technology with a 3-year study of 3,000 elderly subjects, and the prospects certainly look promising.
Scientific American, February 2015 Issue