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Neurotrack to Detect Alzheimer's Years Before Debilitating Symptoms Appear Wins SXSW Health Prize

Update Date: Mar 13, 2013 06:39 PM EDT
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(Photo : Christian Hartmann/Reuters)

Being able to diagnose people with Alzheimer's disease years before debilitating symptoms appear is now a step closer to reality. Researchers behind Neurotrack, the technology startup that took the first health prize at this year's South by Southwest (SXSW) startup accelerator in Austin, says their new technology can diagnose Alzheimer's disease up to six years before symptoms appear with 100 percent accuracy.

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"It's a computer-based visual cognitive test that is able to diagnose Alzheimer's disease six years before symptoms appear," Elli Kaplan, chief executive officer of the Richmond, Virginia-based startup, told AFP.

Around 5.4 million Americans are diagnosed with Alzheimer's and the number is expected to rise to 16 million by 2050, according to the Alzheimer's Association.  However, Kaplan said, today most Alzheimer's patients are diagnosed at late stage, which leaves them with limited treatment options.

"It's the same thing as what happened with breast cancer before they had the mammogram," Kaplan said, according to gigaom.com. "They're diagnosing at the equivalent of stage 4, when there's already irreparable damage."

Kaplan, who graduated from Harvard Business School and is a mother-of-two who lost two grandparents to Alzheimer's disease, said Neurotrack was developed in collaboration with neuroscientists now at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

The computer-based program comes in two versions: one using an infrared camera and the other using a simple computer mouse.  The program is connected to an eye-tracking device that monitors patients' eye movements as they compare new and old images that appear briefly on a screen.

The program analyzes patients' eye movements and time spent looking at familiar and new images and then generates a score.  Kaplan said 100 percent of subjects who scored below 50 percent on the test have gone to receive an Alzheimer's diagnosis within six years, while none of those who scored above 67 have developed Alzheimer's.

"By monitoring the way a person moves their eyes, and watching how they view novel images versus familiar images, we're able to detect perturbations that exist on the hippocampus," Kaplan said, referring to the brain region responsible for memory.  Past research has shown that the hippocampus is also the first part of the brain to be affected by Alzheimer's "Every human being has an instinctive preference for novelty and that's one of the things that we are testing," she said, according to AFP.

Kaplan said that the initial users of Neurotrack will be pharmaceutical companies to help them develop new drugs to prevent, or at least slow the progression of the neurodegenerative disease. She added that down the line, Neurotrack would then be rolled out to doctor's offices and research hospitals. She added that the technology could also be developed into a smartphone and tablet app that consumers can use at home.

"We're actually working on this," Kaplan explained to AFP. "We are not very far away from a technology that will work on your (mobile) phone or on your tablet."

"In 10 years, our hope is that there will be a pill that you can take (to combat Alzheimer's). You'd simply go in for an annual screening test-and if you get the news that you are on a trajectory for Alzheimer's, you'd be able to do something about it," she added.

Other health startups that competed at the SXSW accelerator include Docphin, a web-based platform for healthcare professionals to access and share medical research and Careport Health, which helps hospitals find appropriate after-care treatment for their patients. 

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