Many people are scared of growing old, not only because they fear death but also because they’re concerned about developing Alzheimer’s disease. Now a team of scientists is using virtual reality technology to detect Alzheimer’s disease while it’s still in the early stages.
Virtual reality headsets are rarely seen in applications other than in gaming. However, they could also be used in medicine. Earlier this year, a team of scientists developed a new treatment for acrophobia using VR, but the exploration of medical applications for this technology didn’t stop there.
Images generated in games or other software and then displayed by the headset could be used to test navigational skills. Testing these skills is important when it comes to identifying early symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
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Researchers say those who didn’t perform well in the VR tests are likely to develop Alzheimer’s later in their lives. By identifying these patients early, researchers can find ways to track them and develop treatments which will stop or at least slow the progression of Alzheimer’s.
“It is usually thought memory is the first attribute affected in Alzheimer‘s,” project leader and neuroscientist Dennis Chan of Cambridge University told The Guardian. “But the difficulty with navigation is increasingly recognised as one of the very earliest symptoms. This may predate the onset of other symptoms. By pinpointing those who are beginning to lose their navigational skills, we hope to show that we can target people at a much earlier stage of the condition and one day become far more effective in treating them.”
Only a few years ago, Chan and his colleagues discovered that a decline in navigational skills can be attributed to Alzheimer’s disease. Previous studies included using tablets to test patients’ navigational skills in an attempt to detect Alzheimer’s disease in the early stages.
Using virtual reality should provider better and more accurate results because patients will be interacting with a simulated environment. The patients were asked to navigate in a particular direction and then asked to remember a series of environments and describe them.
Scientists also focused on the importance of a small area in the brain called the entorhinal cortex, which connects the widespread brain network and is responsible for navigation managing.
“The entorhinal cortex is the first brain region to show degeneration when you get Alzheimer’s, and that is where we shall be focusing our research,” Chan said.
Scientists want to detect Alzheimer’s disease in its earliest stages so they can help patients treat it. They hope to one day begin treatment for this debilitating disease before patients actually develop true dementia, which means irreparable damage to the brain has already occurred, according to The Guardian.