A new portable test for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease could help spot cases sooner – helping patients to get treatments earlier, experts have said.
Scientists testing the device, known as Fastball EEG, have been awarded a £1.5m funding boost by the National Institute for Health and Care Research.
Researchers from the universities of Bath and Bristol are to scale up the assessment of the test, which has been dubbed “simple but revolutionary”.
Dr George Stothart and Dr Liz Coulthard said that cases of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are typically diagnosed years after the disease has progressed, and that diagnosing cases sooner would help people get treatments and interventions sooner – which could slow the rate of decline.
The test measures patients’ brain waves while they are watching a series of images displayed on a screen.
Users wear a electroencephalogram (EEG) headset, which is linked to a computer for analysis.
Previous research suggests the test is effective at picking up small, subtle changes in brain waves which occur when a person remembers an image.
The researchers said that this response changes as a person develops dementia, which offers some hope for early diagnosis.
They hope that in the future the test could help lower the age of diagnosis by up to five years in the short term, and by more in the future.
The academics said that current diagnosis often relies on a series of subjective questions to test a person’s memory, which is limited and can be impacted by a person’s education, language skills or nervousness.
They said that because the Fastball headset test is “completely passive”, people’s responses are less likely to be impacted by the test itself.
Another plus point is that the test is portable and can be conducted in a patient’s home, they added.
Thanks to the new funding boost, the researchers will embark on a five-year project to test Fastball on more than 1,000 people in a dementia clinic in Bristol.
They will also work with commercial partners Cumulus Neuroscience to develop the technology into a product that can be rolled out across the NHS.
Dr Stothart, project co-lead from the the University of Bath, 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.
“Yet, dementia is currently diagnosed too late – typically up to 20 years after the disease has first begun.
“Quicker, more accurate ways to diagnose dementia are greatly needed so that patients can get treatments earlier and families can plan better for the future, which is why we are so excited for the potential of Fastball EEG and the development of our work through this significant new funding and the collaborations it will enable.”
Dr Coulthard, associate professor in dementia neurology at the University of Bristol, added: “Patients can wait a long time for diagnosis and some of our current tests can be inaccurate and sometimes stressful for them.
“A quick, easy-to-administer memory test, like Fastball, could transform a patient’s journey to diagnosis.
“As we adopt new treatments into clinical practice, we will need to scale-up our ability to diagnose people at an early stage of Alzheimer’s and avoid language barriers. Fastball offers the opportunity to improve Alzheimer’s diagnosis equitably.”