Researchers at the University of Cambridge in the UK have found that virtual reality (VR) could detect early Alzheimer’s disease more accurately compared to existing ‘gold standard’ cognitive tests.

Existing pen-and-paper cognitive tests are not designed to evaluate patients for navigation difficulties, which occur because of damage to the entorhinal cortex region of the brain.

To address this, a team from the university’s department of clinical neurosciences worked with Professor Neil Burgess at University College London (UCL) to create and assess a VR navigation test in patients who are at risk of dementia.

The test involves use of a VR headset to take a navigation test while walking within a simulated environment.

Since successful completion of the task requires intact the entorhinal cortex functioning, patients with early Alzheimer’s disease are believed to be disproportionately affected on the test.

In 45 patients with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), the team obtained cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) samples and analysed for biomarkers of underlying Alzheimer’s. Of the total participants, 12 tested positive.

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The study also involved 41 age-matched healthy controls for comparison. All MCI patients showed worse performance on the navigation task than the healthy controls.

In addition, MCI patients with positive CSF markers were observed to perform worse than those with negative markers.

“A VR test of navigation may be better at identifying early Alzheimer’s disease than tests we use at present in clinic and in research studies.”

The researchers also found that the VR navigation task was better at distinguishing low and high risk MCI patients than currently-used gold standard tests to diagnose early Alzheimer’s.

University of Cambridge clinical neurosciences department scientist Dr Dennis Chan said: “These results suggest a VR test of navigation may be better at identifying early Alzheimer’s disease than tests we use at present in clinic and in research studies.”

Findings from the study have been published in the Brain journal.

The researchers believe that VR could also help clinical trials of drugs intended to slow down, or halt Alzheimer’s progression.

In addition, Dr Chan formed alliances to develop apps to detect the disease and monitor its progression.