Using virtual reality technology to detect the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s disease

Research project: The entorhinal cortex-hippocampal circuit in people at risk of Alzheimer's disease

  • Lead Investigator: Dr Dennis Chan
  • Institution: University of Cambridge
  • Grant type: PhD grant
  • Duration: 3 years
  • Amount: £84,482

Why did we fund this research?

Comments from members of our Research Network:

'Research to identify Alzheimer’s disease as soon as possible is key and makes this a vital piece of research [...] Its approach is refreshing.’

What do we already know? 

Identifying the initial stages of Alzheimer’s disease could allow clinicians to make fast and more accurate diagnoses. Ultimately this will allow people to manage their symptoms earlier and in the future receive treatment before the condition has progressed. 

This project led by Dr Chan will study two areas of the brain which are known to be affected in the very early stages of Alzheimer’s - the entorhinal cortex and the hippocampus. We know that by the time the clinical symptoms such as memory problems are seen in Alzheimer’s disease, 60% of the brain cells in part of the entorhinal cortex already show signs of the condition. 

Researchers believe these areas of the brain are involved in navigation and memory. This project aims to find out whether changes to the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex can be detected in people at risk of developing dementia using virtual reality technology.

What will this project involve?

The team will use virtual reality technology alongside other clinical tests to compare memory, navigation and spatial behaviour in people who are at risk of Alzheimer’s disease with healthy volunteers. 100 participants will undergo a brain scan to find out whether they are at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease in the future. 

Next, participants will take part in virtual-reality based tests to evaluate their performance on a number of navigation and navigation-based memory tasks. The research teams will compare the results of those at risk of developing dementia with those who do not show the early signs.

How will this project help people with dementia?

This novel project, using virtual reality technology, will tell us more about whether people at risk of Alzheimer’s perform less well in spatial navigation and memory task before any symptoms have developed. It will also shed light on how the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex cause these changes.

If so, this research could improve our ability to diagnose Alzheimer’s more accurately and at the very earliest stages. Early diagnosis is vital as it allows those with the very early stages of the condition to take part in clinical trials of future treatments without delay and allow clinicians to provide support.