Smartphone app could lead to new treatments for early-onset dementia

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In a new study by the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), researchers have developed a smartphone app designed to detect early signs of frontotemporal dementia (FTD), a severe neurological condition often striking individuals in midlife.

This innovation could revolutionize clinical trials and the way we approach FTD by enabling early diagnosis and monitoring of treatment responses, especially in the crucial initial stages of the disease.

FTD, the most common form of dementia in people under 60, has been particularly challenging for the medical community due to its diverse symptoms and genetic factors.

Symptoms can range widely, from dramatic personality changes and impulsivity to difficulties with movement or speech.

The condition, which affects up to 30% of patients due to genetic predispositions, has been difficult to diagnose early, often being mistaken for psychiatric disorders due to the age and symptomatology of those affected.

This UCSF-led research team’s mobile app aims to bridge the gap in early detection and treatment efficacy monitoring by deploying cognitive tests that have shown to be as sensitive as traditional neuropsychological evaluations conducted in clinics.

The app’s development comes at a pivotal time, with over 30 clinical trials for FTD underway or in planning stages, including promising treatments that could slow disease progression in genetically predisposed individuals.

Adam Staffaroni, Ph.D., a clinical neuropsychologist and associate professor at UCSF, highlights the app’s potential to significantly reduce the need for in-person clinical trial visits by providing a reliable platform for monitoring treatment effects remotely.

This advancement is crucial for FTD research, as the condition’s symptoms and impacts vary widely among patients, making standardized treatment and diagnosis approaches challenging.

The research, published in JAMA Network Open, involved tracking 360 participants through the app, focusing on tests of executive function—a cognitive area often impaired by FTD.

These tests, which assess abilities like planning, impulse control, and filtering distractions, are key indicators of the disease’s progression.

Additionally, the app collects data on speech and body movements, offering innovative ways to diagnose and monitor FTD’s impact.

FTD’s complexity and the difficulty of early diagnosis have long hindered treatment development and patient care. However, this study represents a hopeful step forward, utilizing technology to improve our understanding and management of the disease.

While the app is currently not available to the public, its development is a promising advancement in the fight against FTD, offering new avenues for research and the potential for earlier, more effective treatment strategies.

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The research findings can be found in JAMA Network Open.

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