In a new study, researchers found it may be possible to predict if people with mild memory and thinking impairments will go onto develop Alzheimer’s disease using eye-tracking technology.
They hope the finding will contribute to the early diagnosis of patients at an increased risk of the condition and ensure interventions can be put in place sooner.
The research was conducted by a team from Loughborough University and other institutes.
Dementia is the name for a group of symptoms that commonly include problems with memory, thinking, problem-solving, language and perception.
It is not a disease in its own right but is caused by diseases that damage the brain by causing a loss of nerve cells.
Alzheimer’s disease is a severe neurodegenerative disease of the human brain and the most common cause of dementia.
There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s, however, treatments may temporarily ease some symptoms or slow down their progression in some cases.
Current diagnosis of Alzheimer’s relies largely on documenting mental decline, which can be problematic as, by the time it has been identified, the disease may have already caused severe brain damage, rendering some treatments ineffective.
Researchers and dementia charities hope to discover an easy and accurate way to detect Alzheimer’s before these symptoms begin.
In the new study, the team focused on eye movement impairments—such as being unable to stop an incorrect eye movement and instead direct the eye in the appropriate direction.
Patients have been known to develop these impairments in the very early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, before cognitive issues, such as speech, judgment and thinking impairments, are revealed.
The team tested 42 patients with a diagnosis of amnesic mild cognitive impairment (MCI), 47 with a diagnosis of non-amnesic MCI, 68 people with dementia caused due to Alzheimer’s disease, and 92 healthy people.
These people did simple computer tasks where they were told to look away from a distractor stimulus.
For example, if a stimulus, such as a dot, appears on the right of the screen, participants are instructed to look to the left, and vice versa.
From this, the researchers calculated the “antisaccade error rate”—the total number of times a participant looked at the distractor stimulus—using equipment that recorded eye movements 500 times a second.
The researchers found that they were able to differentiate between the two forms of MCI by looking at the eye-tracking results.
They also found that people with aMCI showed eye movement patterns very similar to those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, providing further support for eye-tracking as a useful diagnostic tool.
The results indicate that it is possible to predict which MCI patients are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.
The study supports that eye movement impairments have the potential to be used as a biomarker (an indicator) for Alzheimer’s disease and eye tracking is a promising diagnostic tool.
The team says the test would help with monitoring disease progression and may ultimately help identify whether treatments would be effective.
One author of the study is Dr. Thom Wilcockson, of Loughborough University’s School of Sports, Exercise and Health Sciences.
The study is published in Aging.
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