Participants who developed early Alzheimer’s disease had difficulty turning and turning. (Image: clone)
People with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease have difficulty turning when walking, a new study by researchers at University College London (UCL) has revealed. Experts have used virtual reality to help screen for navigation errors in people showing early signs of the condition, in the hope of developing simple tests against the disease.
The study divided participants into three groups: one with healthy young adults (31 in total), another with healthy elderly people (36), and finally, patients with mild cognitive impairment (43). The researchers then asked them to complete a task while wearing virtual reality glasses, which allowed them to make real movements.
Mild cognitive impairment refers to the stage between the expected decline in memory and thinking that occurs with aging and the more severe decline of dementia.
Participants walked a route guided by numbered cones, consisting of two straight paths connected by a curve. They then had to return to the starting position without guidance.
The task was performed under three different environmental conditions designed to emphasize participants’ navigation skills: The first task was performed in an unaltered virtual environment. In the second, terrain details were replaced with flat textures, and finally all reference points in the VR world were temporarily removed.
As a result of this study, researchers found that participants with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease consistently overestimated curves in the road and showed greater variability in their sense of direction. However, this was not observed in either of the other two groups, i.e. young and healthy elderly, suggesting that these navigation errors are condition specific.
“Our goal is to develop practical tests that can be easily integrated into clinical settings, taking into account common constraints such as limited space and time. Traditional navigation tests often present requirements that are difficult to meet in a clinical setting,” says Andrea Castenaro, Professor at the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and one of the authors. The study: “Our research focuses on specific aspects of mobility that are best able to adapt to these constraints.”
However, according to Castagnaro, new and more comprehensive studies are still needed to confirm these first discoveries.
It is estimated that there are currently 944,000 people with dementia in the UK and more than 60% of those diagnosed have Alzheimer’s disease. Similar estimates in the United States suggest that the number of people aged 65 or older living with Alzheimer’s dementia could double, rising to 13.8 million in the United States by 2060, excluding medical advances.
The Department of Health estimates that around 1.2 million people are living with some form of dementia and 100,000 new cases are diagnosed each year. The numbers, in addition to showing an increasing trend, show that it is necessary to have measures that help diagnose this type of disease early.
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