A three-minute iPad test could help doctors in the UAE spot early signs of dementia, an expert from the UK said.
Dr Sina Habibi, co-founder and chief executive of Cognetivity Neurosciences, a technology company developing a cognitive testing platform, told The National the test could help doctors to diagnose mental deterioration, Alzheimer's disease and multiple sclerosis 15 years before patients start showing symptoms.
A rapid screen test checks the speed and accuracy of a person’s thinking by asking them to select pictures with animals from a series of images.
The programme was developed in the UK by Dr Habibi and his co-professor Dr Seyed-Mahdi Khaligh-Razavi at the University of Cambridge, with support from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the NHS.
They hope to make the technology available in the UAE soon .
It has been successfully trialled by the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, which tested thousands of people.
The Integrated Cognitive Assessment (ICA) delivers a score out of 100 to determine if someone is healthy, at risk, or impaired.
Because the ICA stimulates more parts of the brain than existing tests, it is more sensitive to deterioration.
“Before functional MRI machines, we did not know what was going on in the brain and had to wait until someone died before we could investigate,” said Dr Habibi, who has a PhD in nanobiotechnology.
“The breakthrough in neuroimaging allowed us to put someone in a machine and ask them to complete a task so we could see which part of their brain was active.
“By looking at human vision, we could see how the brain interprets images.
“Eyes are like a camera, but the understanding of what is inside the image is done in the brain.
“Our research revealed a specific response to animals.”
Animals are integral to mankind and the development of the human brain, so they elicit a clear instinctive response.
This can then be measured to assess healthy brain function, allowing doctors to prescribe relevant steps to delay the potential onset of dementia.
An individual age-dependent score is compared with thousands of previous tests where dementia may have been diagnosed to check someone’s mental alertness.
Artificial intelligence then compares and predicts the likelihood that the individual will also develop the condition.
The test will be made available only for health professionals to screen patients who may be showing signs of mental deterioration, such as forgetfulness or confusion.
“The beauty is there is no language, cultural or education bias,” Dr Habibi said.
“It could be used in China tomorrow, for example, where dementia has only recently been widely recognised.
“Other tests that look at logic, short and long-term memory tests that can last up to 45 minutes are not good at picking up subtle brain changes.
“This test activates a lot of the brain at the same time, which gives a more accurate outcome for doctors.”
Existing tests for mental function, such as the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCa) taken by former US president Donald Trump, were criticised as outdated and time-consuming.
Created by Canadian neurologist Dr Ziad Nasreddine, MoCa asks 30 questions and takes 30 minutes to complete.
The assessment faces criticism for being overly sensitive when compared with shorter mental status assessments.
Dr Anantha Guruswamy, a specialist neurologist at NMC Specialty Hospital Abu Dhabi, uses a similar minimum mental score assessment to check dementia.
“Dementia is like an ocean with varying cognitive decline,” he said.
“Patients are usually elderly with a strong family history of the condition and are referred if they have experienced forgetfulness or confusion.
“We have different kinds of assessment, usually by speaking with the patient or caregiver directly about their experiences.
“In outpatient clinics, assessments need to be quick and reliable to give us a wider view of the patient’s mental deficit.”
By establishing who may be more predisposed to dementia, doctors can prescribe healthy lifestyle changes to delay the onset or reduce the risk altogether.
It includes cutting down on alcohol and caffeine, sleeping better, reducing air and noise pollution, and generally improving lifestyle with a balanced diet and regular exercise.
Previous head injuries and genetics are also linked to dementia.
“The challenge is early detection and intervention,” Dr Guruswamy said.
“While there is no specific treatment, we can delay the onset of symptoms and reduce progression of the disease if we catch it early enough.”
Dementia care costs about $500 billion globally every year and is expected to reach $2 trillion by 2030, according to the US Global Brain Health Institute.
Experts said early diagnosis has the potential to save $118,000 per patient.
Annual NHS dementia costs in the UK run at about £26.3 billion, with otherwise healthy adults often needing round-the-clock specialist care.
“We are putting a lot of emphasis into early diagnosis at the moment,” said Dr Carol Routledge, director of research at Alzheimer Research UK.
“This test can be done annually and is so sensitive it could take diagnoses back 15 years.
“If someone is pre-symptomatic, they can then be triaged to receive further tests and treatment at an earlier stage.”