You may think of Alzheimer’s as a disease of the elderly, but the truth is people who suffer from it have had it for years — sometimes decades — before they notice. Early detection can help doctors minimize the impact the condition has on your brain, so there’s starting to be an emphasis on testing middle-aged adults for the earliest signs of the illness. It turns out that one of the first noticeable symptoms is a decline in your ability to navigate. [Dennis Chan] at Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre and his team are now using virtual reality to determine how well people can navigate as a way to assess Alzheimer’s earlier than is possible with other techniques.
Current tests mostly measure your ability to remember things, but by the time that’s a problem, things have often progressed. The test has the subject walk to different cones and remember their locations, and has already proven more effective than the standard test.
The next step will be to test about 300 volunteers between the ages of 40 and 60. They will then track these subjects to see if they show signs of mental impairment in the future and correlate that to the original test results. They are hoping to show that they can detect Alzheimer’s earlier before there are any outward symptoms — what’s called preclinical Alzheimer’s.
Scientists believe that a tiny area of your brain — the entorhinal cortex within the temporal lobe — is among the first parts of your brain to feel the effect of Alzheimer’s. This part of your brain is crucial to your navigation ability.