A simple but revolutionary approach to early Alzheimer’s diagnosis is being pioneered by researchers through an initiative that could pave the way for improved outcomes for individuals who develop the disease in the future.

Led by psychologists at the University of Bath and funded by the dementia charity BRACE, the research uses a new method to passively measure brain activity. It involves participants looking at a series of flashing images on a computer over two minutes, whilst their brain waves are measured using an EEG cap.

New research on this, published in the journal Brain, shows that the technique is highly effective at picking up small, subtle changes in brain waves which occur when a person remembers an image. The technique is completely passive, meaning the person doing the test doesn’t need to understand the task or respond, and may not even be aware of their memory response.

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The team behind the ‘Fastball EEG’ technology says the approach is cheap, portable and relies on pre-existing technology already available in hospitals, making it easily scalable. They are now beginning to use Fastball EEG in a study of the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s disease in collaboration with the Research Institute for the Care of Older People (RICE) and the Bristol Brain Centre at Southmead Hospital.

Fastball EEG could help lower the age of Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis

Alzheimer’s disease is currently diagnosed using a combination of subjective and objective reports of cognitive decline, often involving memory tests administered in a clinic. These tests are prone to various biases, including assessment anxiety, but also require verbal and written communication abilities which make them ineffective for certain people.

In the near future, the researchers hope that Fastball EEG could help lower the age of diagnosis by up to five years. Longer-term, they say it may offer opportunities to expand this further. They liken their future aspirations for its application to current screening tools used to test for high blood pressure in middle age.

Lead researcher and cognitive neuroscientist Dr George Stothart of the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath said: “Fastball offers a genuinely novel way of measuring how our brain is functioning. The person being assessed doesn’t need to understand the test, or even respond, they simply watch a screen of flashing images and by the way we manipulate the images that appear we can learn an enormous amount about what their brain is, or is not, able to do.

“The tests we currently use to diagnose Alzheimer’s miss the first 20 years of the disease, which means we are missing huge opportunities to help people. For decades now we have had tools in scientific research that have been able to probe how the brain is working, but we have never made the leap to a viable clinical tool for the objective assessment of cognition. We hope that Fastball may be that leap."

Dr Stothart and colleagues will soon start work on a significant £100,000 longitudinal study of early dementia funded by the Academy of Medical Sciences. The study will involve testing patients with Mild Cognitive Impairment using the new Fastball tool. Mild Cognitive Impairment is for some patients the first signs of Alzheimer’s, but crucially for many it is not, and determining who is going to progress to Alzheimer’s could move diagnosis earlier by up to five years.