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New link between Alzheimer’s disease and spatial awareness issues

Researchers suggest there could be a link between Alzheimer’s disease and poor spatial awareness.

<p>Alzheimer’s disease is linked to factors such as family history and low physical activity. [Source: Shuttershock]</p>

Alzheimer’s disease is linked to factors such as family history and low physical activity. [Source: Shuttershock]

Key points:

  • Researchers suggest that using virtual reality technology could be key in diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease in its early stages
  • A third of people born today will develop dementia later in life, according to the associate director of Research and Innovation at Alzheimer’s Society

 

Difficulty with spatial awareness may be an indicator of Alzheimer’s disease later in life, according to new results released. Other cognitive tests were also conducted, however, participants with risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease were ‘selectively impaired on the VR navigation task, without a corresponding impairment on other cognitive tasks’. 

Having a good level of spatial awareness means to understand where things are around us, as well as where we are in relation to them. This is an important ability as it means we can maintain personal space and reduce the likelihood of bumping into furniture as we move around. Researchers suggest that there’s a link between poor spatial awareness in middle-aged people and the onset of Alzheimer’s disease later in life.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, with up to 70 percent of people with dementia diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. In 2022, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare estimated that over 401,000 Australians were living with some form of dementia, which suggests there may have been over 280,000 Australians affected by Alzheimer’s disease at the time.

Researchers such as Dr Richard Oakley, the associate director of Research and Innovation at Alzheimer’s Society, are hopeful about the study’s results and how understanding the link with spatial awareness could influence future diagnostic testing for people at risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

“Very early symptoms of dementia can be subtle and difficult to detect, but problems with navigation are thought to be some of the first changes in Alzheimer’s disease,” said Dr Oakley.  

Participants of the study were aged between 43 and 66 years old and were at an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease due to factors such as family history or lifestyle choices including low physical activity. 

Researchers asked participants to ‘navigate within a virtual environment while wearing VR [virtual reality] headsets’. Virtual reality headsets incorporate visual and auditory attributes through technology to create an environment different from the one in which the participant is physically present. The headset fits over the person’s eyes and sensors within the headset change the perspective of the virtual environment to match when the participant turns their head. 

Dr Richard Oakley makes it clear that providing the right support and treatment for people with dementia is important because of the disease’s prevalence.

“One in three people born today will go on to develop dementia,” said Dr Oakley.

This innovative research, which could help many people in the future, still requires more work to develop the technology of using virtual reality, but Dr Oakley understands that it must be further investigated to help diagnose Alzheimer’s disease earlier. 

“[…] it will be exciting to see how this research may offer a way to spot disease-specific changes early and help people living with dementia in the future,” said Dr Oakley.

In the study, there were also differences between how women and men responded to the experiment, which must also be further investigated, according to Dr Coco Newton, from the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.

“It also highlights the need for further study of the differing vulnerability of men and women to Alzheimer’s disease and the importance of taking gender into account for both diagnosis and future treatment,” said Dr Newton.

What are your thoughts about using virtual reality technology to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease?

Let the team at Talking Aged Care know and subscribe to the newsletter for weekly news, information and industry updates.

Relevant content:

Possible new cause of Alzheimer’s disease

How culture may impact behaviours of people with dementia

Dementia doulas are coming to WA

 

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