In a new study, researchers found that virtual reality (VR) could help detect navigation problems in early Alzheimer’s disease.
The VR detection is more accurately than ‘gold standard’ cognitive tests currently in use.
The finding suggests that VR could help develop better diagnosis and monitoring tools for Alzheimer’s disease.
The research was conducted by a team from the University of Cambridge.
Previous research has shown that the first symptom of Alzheimer’s is that patients feel they get lost when they go out.
This is because a brain region important for spacial processing called entorhinal cortex is one of the first regions to be damaged in Alzheimer’s disease.
But the current the pen-and-paper cognitive tests used in the clinic to diagnose the condition cannot test the navigation problems.
In the current study, the team developed a VR navigation test in patients at risk of developing dementia.
In the test, a patient wears a VR headset and undertakes a test of navigation while walking within a simulated environment.
Successful completion of the task requires good functioning of the entorhinal cortex.
The team tested 45 patients with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). These people had memory impairment, which could be caused by Alzheimer’s or anxiety and even normal aging.
The researchers also recruited 41 age-matched healthy people for comparison.
They found that all of the patients with MCI performed worse on the navigation task than the healthy people.
Some MCI patients also had high cerebrospinal fluid biomarkers (indicating Alzheimer’s), and their performance was worse than MCI patients did not have the biomarkers.
The team also found that the VR navigation task was better at distinguishing between these low and high-risk MCI patients than currently-used tests for the diagnosis of early Alzheimer’s.
The team suggests that a VR test of navigation may be better at detecting early Alzheimer’s disease.
VR may also help clinical studies of future drugs aimed at slowing down, or even halting, the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
The study is published in the journal Brain.
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