Researchers from the University of Cambridge demonstrated the potential for virtual reality (VR) to serve as a diagnostic tool for diagnosing early Alzheimer’s disease more effectively than existing tests.

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The research is based on findings that the cells in the brain’s internal “global positioning system” of the entorhinal cortex are the first to be damaged in Alzheimer’s disease. Therefore, identifying poor function within this brain region can point to the onset of Alzheimer’s.

The Cambridge team developed a VR navigation test for patients at risk of developing dementia. Successful completion of this test would indicate that the brain’s GPS system is working well, while the researchers expected that the patients with early Alzheimer’s would perform more poorly on the same test.

The scientists studied their VR system on 45 patients with mild cognitive impairment, along with 41 age-matched healthy controls. They found all patients with mild cognitive impairment performed worse on the navigation task than the controls. Twelve patients with mild cognitive impairment also had known biomarkers for Alzheimer’s disease, and these patients performed worse than the rest of the patients with mild cognitive impairment. Surprisingly, they found that the VR navigation task was better at identifying between low and high risk patients with mild cognitive impairment than the existing gold standard tests.

“We’ve wanted to do this for years, but it’s only now that virtual reality technology has evolved to the point that we can readily undertake this research in patients,” says Dr. Chan, the senior author of the study, in a press release. “We know that Alzheimer’s affects the brain long before symptoms become apparent. We’re getting to the point where everyday tech can be used to spot the warning signs of the disease well before we become aware of them.

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