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'Fastball' Test Awarded New Funding for Earlier Alzheimer's Diagnosis

UK scientists have announced a £1.5 million funding boost to scale up development of a test for earlier detection of dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

Dementia is currently diagnosed too late, up to 20 years after the disease has begun, said researchers. Their innovative assessment using a version of computerised "fastball" could speed up diagnosis.

"Pen and paper tests used to help diagnose dementia have many problems," they said, and "cannot detect the earliest signs of dementia or tell different forms of dementia apart". Moreover, anxiety, language, and educational ability can affect people's scores, they noted.

Project co-lead Dr Liz Coulthard, associate professor in dementia neurology, Bristol University, and neurologist at North Bristol NHS Trust, agreed. "Patients can wait a long time for diagnosis, and some of our current tests can be inaccurate and sometimes stressful for them."

"Quicker, more accurate ways to diagnose dementia are greatly needed so patients can get treatments earlier and plan for their future," the team explained in a press release . "Our aim is to improve early diagnosis using a new way of measuring brain function in the early stages of dementia."

Non-invasive Test

The researchers from the Universities of Bath and Bristol, and University College London (UCL), developed a technique, called "fastball". It involves showing a person some pictures to remember, and then showing the pictures to them at a very fast rate, mixed up amongst pictures they had not seen. Using headsets to record a person's electroencephalogram (EEG), the researchers would be able to monitor brain activity to determine whether a person remembers the pictures or not.

Their previous research had shown "fastball" to be effective at picking up small, subtle changes in brain waves that occurred when a person remembered an image. They had also demonstrated that this response changed as a person developed dementia, offering hope for earlier diagnosis.

When being tested with "fastball", the person undergoing the test did not need to understand the task or be aware of their memory response. This would help lessen the effect of anxiety and educational understanding on test results, which would "democratise" how Alzheimer's was diagnosed, the researchers point out. The testing equipment is also portable, offering the opportunity of the test being performed in a patient's home.

Earlier Diagnosis

The 5-year project will involve trials involving over 1000 patients. By testing more people earlier and more regularly, the team believe it could help "lower the age of diagnosis" by up to 5 years in the short-term, and by more in the future. 

Project co-lead Dr George Stothart, cognitive neuroscientist at Bath University's Department of Psychology, said: "Nearly all of us will know someone, or be caring for someone, with dementia. The costs to families, and to the NHS is enormous and is set to rise as our population ages."

A quick, easy-to-administer memory test could "transform" a patient's journey to diagnosis, and ensure that all patients have an opportunity for earlier intervention and treatment, the researchers stressed.

Professor Lucy Chappell, CEO of the National Institute for Health and Care Research, which funded the project, pointed out that new technologies have the potential to "radically transform" healthcare for the future, improving methods for treating and living with dementia.

The work will be presented by Dr Stothart at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference (AAIC 23), which will take place in Amsterdam between 16 and 20 July. 

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