New research published in the Journal of the American Aging Association has revealed that they key to accurate and early Alzheimer’s diagnosis could be a simple eye tracking test, according to researchers at Lancaster University.
Working in conjunction with the Royal Preston Hospital and Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, the Lancaster team have exposed a particular difficulty in those with the disease when asked to follow light on a screen.
The study involved 18 patients with Alzheimer’s disease, 25 patients with Parkinson’s disease, 17 healthy young people and 18 healthy older people; all of whom were asked to follow the movements of light on a computer monitor and, in some cases look in the opposite direction away from the light. Using detailed eye tracking technology, the simple test exposed some significant contrasts in results.
It quickly became clear that patients with Alzheimer’s disease struggled considerably when asked to look away from the light, and were unable to correct these errors once they became aware of them. Such errors were 10 times more frequent in Alzheimer’s patients but, by contrast, they performed perfectly normally when tasked with looking toward the light.
As well as this, the researchers were also able to expose a clear correlation between lower memory function and an inability to accurately follow (or ignore) the light.
Implications of the results
The team at Lancaster University said that the biggest significance of the results was that they demonstrated for the first time a real connection between memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease – a problem which is commonly considered the first noticeable symptom of the disease but which, until now, had no concrete proof.
Currently, accurate diagnosis of Alzheimer’s relies on lengthy neuropsychological tests which not only allow the condition to develop further but are also often difficult for the patient to perform because of the very nature of the disease producing lapses in attention and understanding.
The researchers went on to comment that scientists have been searching for such a method of diagnosis for around 10 years, and it has long since been suspected that eye movements could hold the key to assessing cognitive ability.
Assessing cognitive ability is, of course, crucially important in detecting Alzheimer’s – the most common cause of dementia. Approximately 500,000 people in the UK are affected and the disease often sets in years before symptoms show, and this makes detecting the earliest signs vital.