An app's 5-minute test could predict Alzheimer's risk

Can the eyes really provide a window into our brain health? That's what a California-based startup and a group of neuroscientists are pinning their hopes on.

Neurotrack Technologies Inc., a startup founded in 2012 to create easier ways to detect cognitive decline, released its first app in January. Its five-minute Imprint Cognitive Assessment Test, usable on any computer with a webcam, is said to measure the level of dysfunction in the hippocampus brain region by gauging how well a person holds onto the memory of a familiar image. Because this brain region, responsible for certain aspects of memory alongside navigation and emotion, is one of the first areas to be damaged by Alzheimer's Disease, the company hopes the test can better predict who will develop and eventually succumb to the neurodegenerative disorder.

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This file photo dated 04 November, 1991 shows US President Ronald Reagan giving a speech at the dedication of the library bearing his name in Simi Valley, California. He was US president from 1981 to 1989 and retreated from public life after it was revealed he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. (Photo by J. David Ake, AFP/Getty Images)
Glenn Campbell performs during The Goodbye Tour at the Ryman Auditorium on January 3, 2012 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Ed Rode/Getty Images)
Picture dated 18 May 1991 of US actor Charles Bronson during the 44th Cannes film festival, southern France. Bronson died 30 August 2003 in Los Angeles of complications from pneumonia. (Photo by Gerard Julien, AFP/Getty Images)
392653 01: Actor Burgess Meredith performs in the television show 'The Twilight Zone.' (Photo Courtesy of Sci Fi Channel/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - AUGUST 31: Actor James Doohan recieves his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame August 31, 2004 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Mark Mainz/Getty Images)
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 17: Malcolm Young of AC/DC performs on stage at Wembley Arena on January 17th, 1986 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Peter Still/Redferns)
NORMAN ROCKWELL'S AMERICA -- Pictured: Artist Norman Rockwell -- (Photo by: Gary Null/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Publicity close up of Hollywood actress Rita Hayworth wearing ornately decorated gloves and holding a cigarette in a cigarette holder.
NEW YORK CITY - FEBRUARY 29: Aaron Copeland attends 10th Annual Grammy Awards on February 29, 1968 at the New York Hilton Hotel in New York City. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage) (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
Actor Peter Falk poses as he arrives for the premiere of his new film "Lakeboat" September 24, 2001 in Los Angeles. The film is an adaptation of David Mamet's comic play about a grad student who takes a summer job on a Great Lakes freighter and sees life through the eyes of his low-brow crew members. The film opens in limited release in Los Angeles September 28. REUTERS/Rose Prouser RMP/jp
Estelle Getty (Photo by Jim Smeal/WireImage)

Earlier detection of Alzheimer's risk could help patients to take proactive steps to protect their mind from decline. And as the U.S. sees Alzheimer's rates increase with an aging population, tests like these could also potentially save money on expensive diagnostic tests currently used, like PET and MRI scans. "We'd love for this app to have an impact everywhere, especially in places where access to healthcare and specialized care for seniors, who are very often living on fixed incomes, is harder to get," Neurotrack CEO and cofounder Elli Kaplan told TechCrunch earlier this December.

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The app is based on research conducted by Neurotrack co-founders Dr. Stuart Zola, Dr. Cecelia Manzanares, and Dr. Elizabeth Buffalo. Zola and Buffalo extensively worked with monkeys for some time, using them as a placeholder to test how memory functions and degrades in people. Eventually, with Manzanares and others, they developed a 30-minute test called the Visual Paired Comparison (VPC) task.

The VPC places several images in front of someone and tracks how long their eyes stay glued to them. When we're at our healthiest, we can't help but spend more time staring at an image we've never seen before than one we already have. But when our hippocampus is damaged, as the research group showed in several humanstudies, this preference goes out of the window since we simply don't remember the older images as well.

In the group's most expansive study to date, published in 2013, they tested and followed nearly 100 patients for five years, with a third having mild cognitive impairment (a stage of mostly unnoticeable mental decline that signifies a higher risk of Alzheimer's and other types of dementia) and the rest being healthy. In both groups, a low VPC score did indeed largely predict who would go on to develop Alzheimer's or slip further down into cognitive decline, sometime as far as three years before it happened.

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However, the science behind Neurotrack isn't entirely settled. For one, scaling down a 30-minute test into a 5-minute version could come with some drawbacks, such as reduced accuracy. And while Neurotrack's homework isn't lacking, any good piece of science, no matter how groundbreaking, needs to be replicated in different places and by non-affliated scientists.

The company says they've begun a clinical trial of their technology as of earlier this spring, in partnership with other research institutions that are testing it out in their labs, including the NYU Alzheimer's Disease Center.

Dr. Stephen Ferris, of the NYU Alzheimer's Disease Center, told Vocativ that his research team is currently recruiting both healthy volunteers and those with mild impairment to put the Neurotrack software through its paces. Volunteers will be given the normal course of tests that measure established signs of early Alzheimer's progression, which will then be compared to their Neurotrack scores to see if they match up. His research, two-thirds complete, is not only evaluating Neurotrack (both the 30-minute and 5-minute version) but a bevy of other promising noninvasive tests — all in hopes of finding a better and cheaper way to diagnose the earliest cases of Alzheimer's.

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"Standard cognitive tests don't really tell us, to any useful extent, who among the population of older people are likely to have the beginnings of Alzheimer's disease," Ferris said. "And so there's a huge need for inexpensive, noninvasive ways to identify people at risk."

Currently, anyone can take the test for free by registering on the company's website. From there, they can then sign up for Neurotrack's Cognitive Health Program, developed by a different group of researchers, which provides useful lifestyle and dieting tips intended to stave off any further brain drain.

Elsewhere, Neurotrack isn't the only group intending to use our eyes as a window into our Alzheimer's future — researchers at the University of Minnesota published their own work this past July on an experimental eye exam that detects subtle changes in the retina caused by the formation of plaque in the brain. They hope to begin human trials in the near future as well.

The post An App's 5-Minute Test Could Predict Alzheimer's Risk appeared first on Vocativ.

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