BATH, United Kingdom — A revolutionary test to improve early detection for dementia and Alzheimer’s has received a nearly $2 million funding boost. The money has been awarded to the universities of Bath and Bristol to support the development of a test that hopes to detect these neurological diseases earlier than ever before.
The “Fastball EEG” dementia assessment is a passive, completely non-invasive test. It measures patients’ brain waves whilst they watch a series of flashing images displayed on a screen. While they watch, participants wear an electroencephalogram (EEG) headset, which is linked to a computer.
The headset picks up small, subtle changes in brain waves that happen when a person remembers an image. Through carrying out the test, researchers have found that it records changes as a person develops dementia, offering hope as a breakthrough for early diagnosis.
By testing more people earlier and more regularly through this new test, scientists believe it could help lower the age of diagnosis by up to five years in the short-term and by more in the future.
“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,” says project co-lead Dr. George Stothart, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Bath.
“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,” Stothart adds in a media release.
Dementia is typically diagnosed too late, at a point where the disease has damaged the brain beyond repair. This can be up to 20 years after dementia first started to develop.
Current diagnosis often relies on a series of subjective questions to test a person’s memory. These are limited and can be impacted by a person’s education, language skills or nervousness.
Fastball is different as it is completely passive, meaning the person doing the test doesn’t need to understand the task or be aware of their memory response. It is also portable so diagnoses can be carried out in the patient’s home.
“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,” adds Dr. Liz Coulthard, an associate professor in Dementia Neurology at the University of Bristol and neurologist at North Bristol NHS Trust.
“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.”
Recent findings from Alzheimer’s Research UK suggested that many people would want to know if they will develop Alzheimer’s in the future, even if they don’t yet have symptoms. Through the new five-year project, the team will test Fastball on more than 1,000 patients in a working dementia clinic.
It is the biggest study of any kind to use EEG to screen for Alzheimer’s disease with a goal to enroll a diverse patient population. They will also continue to develop the technology into a product that can be rolled out wider across the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) and beyond.
“Alzheimer’s is a devastating disease that affects brain function, memory, and other cognitive abilities. Since diagnosis is often based on a clinician asking a patient a series of questions to test memory function, the results can be greatly impacted by factors including education, language skills and anxiety,” says Brian Murphy, PhD, Founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Cumulus.
“Cumulus is proud to be partnering with Drs Stothart and Coulthard on the development of this crucial new diagnostic tool. As a passive test, Fastball EEG has the potential to democratize how Alzheimer’s is diagnosed, ensuring all patients have an opportunity for earlier intervention and treatment.”
The funding is part of the National Institute for Health and Care Research’s (NIHR) Invention for Innovation project. The Fastball EEG is one of six projects announced as part of the major $14 million investment to develop enhanced digital approaches for early detection and diagnosis for dementia.
“New technologies have the potential to radically transform healthcare for the future. Improving methods for treating and living with dementia is work of vital public interest. These studies will also support the dementia healthcare mission in the Life Science Vision, as we look for new ways of understanding whether drugs are working by using digital biomarkers. Such significant investment in these important projects shows that the UK is at the cutting edge of research into one of the most pressing health and care issues of our time,” says Professor Lucy Chappell, the CEO of NIHR.
The work will be presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Amsterdam.
South West News Service writer Alice Clifford contributed to this report.