Scientists have found an unexpected use for virtual reality headsets: to help pinpoint people who may later develop Alzheimer’s Disease.

Virtual reality devices, widely used by computer gamers, display images that can be used to test the navigational skills of people thought to be at risk of dementia. Those who do worse in the tests will be the ones most likely to succumb to Alzheimer’s later in life, scientists now believe.

“It is usually thought memory is the first attribute affected in Alzheimer’s,” said project leader Dennis Chan, a neuroscientist based at Cambridge University. “But difficulty with navigation is noted as one of the very earliest symptoms. This may predate the onset of other symptoms.

“By pinpointing those who are beginning to lose their navigational skills, we hope to show that we can target people at a much earlier stage of the condition and one day become far more effective in treating them.”

Scientists plan to take their tests to a new level with the use of the virtual reality sets in which wearers are immersed in simulated environments through which they must navigate.

“We will make a note of those who have particular problems and see if these are the ones who are at higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s,” explained Chan. “The aim of the study is very simple: can we detect changes in brain function before people are aware that they have them?”

Researchers recently pinpointed the significance of a tiny area of the brain known as the entorhinal cortex, which acts as a hub in a widespread brain network that controls navigation. This now appears to be the first part of the brain that succumbs to Alzheimer’s.

Reference: The Guardian December 16, 2018

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