New study suggests navigation difficulties could be an early sign of Alzheimer’s

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By Aoife Cosgrave | Friday 13 October 2023

Current Biology: Overestimation in angular path integration precedes Alzheimer’s dementia.

Researchers at University College London have identified subtle changes in the way people with early features of Alzheimer’s disease navigate through a virtual reality space.

In this small study, people were separated into three groups: younger healthy adults, older healthy adults, and adults with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). All three groups were asked to walk along a virtual reality route.

The researchers found that the people who experienced difficulties turning were those with MCI but also had underlying signs of early Alzheimer’s disease, including elevated levels of Alzheimer’s proteins in their spinal fluid.

Dr Leah Mursaleen, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK says;

“There are nearly 1 million people living with Alzheimer’s in the UK, but thanks in part to limitations in current methods of detection, only around 60% of them will ever receive a diagnosis. So, it’s vital that we develop new, more precise early detection techniques that can be easily used in healthcare systems like the NHS. This will be particularly important as we enter an era where dementia becomes a treatable condition.

“Thanks to advances in technology, a wide range of devices and platforms are being explored to see if they have the potential to detect early signs of neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s. This small, early-stage study looks at using a virtual reality environment to analyse the way people turn while walking. The results suggest this can detect differences in participants with early Alzheimer’s disease. However, as the group included fewer than 50 people, a larger study is needed to understand the future potential of this promising discovery.

“It will also be important to understand how digital technologies like this can be used in combination with other emerging techniques like blood tests, which are also showing huge promise for detecting Alzheimer’s disease.”

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Aoife Cosgrave