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Researchers say a new test that measures brain waves may help with earlier diagnosis of dementia. Christopher Smith/Getty Images
  • Researchers say a new test known as “Fastball” may help diagnosis Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia earlier.
  • They say the EEG test measures brain waves when a person recognizes an image as opposed to the current exams that gauge only memory.
  • Experts say such an EEG test could help with earlier treatment of Alzheimer’s as well as research into the causes of the disease.

Researchers say they may have crafted a simple early detection test that could be game changing when it comes to diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

The new Fastball EEG test was officially unveiled this week by a team from the universities of Bath and Bristol in the United Kingdom.

A study on the effectiveness of the test was presented today at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Amsterdam.

“Fastball” is a passive and non-invasive test measuring a person’s brain waves while they watch a series of flashing images on a screen.

Users wear an electroencephalogram (EEG) headset, linked to a computer for analysis.

The researchers, led by Dr. George Stothart from the University of Bath in England and Dr. Liz Coulthard from the University of Bristol in England, said in a press release that the “Fastball” test is highly effective at detecting small, subtle changes in brain waves that occur when a person remembers an image.

They said their test shows this response changes as a person develops dementia and Alzheimer’s.

The researchers said they hope their findings can lead to breakthroughs for earlier diagnosis of the disease.

The team said dementia is typically diagnosed too late, when the brain is damaged beyond repair. It currently can take up to 20 years to diagnose the condition after it starts to develop.

Current diagnosis relies on subjective questions to test a person’s memory. Scientists say it’s limited and can be affected by the subject’s education, language skills, or even nervousness.

Researchers say the Fastball test is passive, meaning the subject doesn’t need to understand the task or be aware of their memory response.

It’s also portable, which the team says means diagnoses could be done anywhere, including the subject’s home.

The researchers said Fastball could spot signs of memory loss up to 5 years earlier than the current tests.

“Patients can wait a long time for diagnosis and some of our current tests can be inaccurate and sometimes stressful for them,” said Coulthard. “A quick, easy-to-administer memory test, like Fastball, could transform a patient’s journey to diagnosis.”

Through a five-year National Institute for Health and Care Research project, the researchers will test Fastball on more than 1,000 people in a dementia clinic at Southmead Hospital in Bristol.

The researchers say it’s the biggest study of any kind to use EEG techniques to screen for Alzheimer’s disease with the goal of examining a diverse population.

The scientists will work with Belfast-based commercial partners Cumulus Neuroscience Ltd to develop the technology into a product that can be rolled out on a wide basis.

“Nearly all of us will know someone, or be caring for someone, with dementia,” said Stothart.

“The costs to families, and to the NHS, is enormous and is set to rise as our population ages,” Stothart added. “Yet, dementia is currently diagnosed too late – typically up to 20 years after the disease has first begun.”

Bruce Albala, a professor of environmental and occupational health at the UC Irvine Program in Public Health, told Medical News Today there are also certain biomarkers that indicate someone has Alzheimer’s that must be accounted for.

“There is a difference between diagnosing cognitive impairments, which is based upon poor performance in memory testing, and other brain functions and diagnosing a specific disease such as [Alzheimer’s],” Albala said.

“The Fastball EEG approach would clearly need to indicate a functional deficiency prior to the onset of dementia but would ideally show this even before any behavioral symptoms were evident,” he added.

Albala said that though there’s no approved drugs to treat the asymptomatic phase of Alzheimer’s, “If the Fastball assessment procedure works and can identify a functional marker of memory impairment, then it will serve as a clear signal for a thorough medical workup to determine the etiology of the future memory impairment.”

Cynthia Benjamin, the founder and chief executive officer of Together Senior Health, told Medical News Today that there are other ways to deal with the early phases of Alzheimer’s, making the new test even more important.

“Additional research is warranted before techniques like Fast EEG are widely adopted as reliable for a definitive diagnosis but given its ease of use with currently existing tools Fast EEG could easily be used in current clinical practice to indicate the need for further testing,” Benjamin said.

“We also now know that there are certain modifiable risk factors for dementia and potential for delay of decline with lifestyle changes and new non-drug interventions. More and more people want to know their cognitive status as early as possible so they can take action to maintain their brain health,” she added.

Jana Abelovska, a superintendent pharmacist with Click Pharmacy, told Medical News Today that Fastball could mean “longer life, with increased cognition and an improved quality of life” for those with Alzheimer’s and dementia.

“The aim is that, with tests such as this, the future of Alzheimer’s testing could see patients diagnosed before any symptoms have started to present, significantly improving the chances of preventing any brain damage from taking place,” Abelovska said.

Dr. Howard Pratt, the medical director at Community Health of South Florida, told Medical News Today that Fastball could help researchers down the line discover more about where Alzheimer’s and dementia comes from.

“Diagnosing Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia five years before current tests would have a huge impact,” said Pratt. “If I can diagnose and treat Alzheimer’s, dementia, or less common forms of cognitive disease so early, this can result in huge improvements to the quality of life of those afflicted with the disease and to those who care about them.”

“Right now, we don’t have a cure for dementia, but have medications that can slow its progression and mask the symptoms. These medications would be more effective when used to treat symptoms sooner, rather than later,” he added. “Such early diagnoses would also allow us to identify any correlations related to dementia or Alzheimer’s and thereby help us identify other possible causes of dementia.”