Scientists have developed a new way to screen for age-related cognitive decline at home using a test that asks people to detect sounds and flashes on their laptop or phone.

Developed by researchers from Switzerland and the U.K., the study shows that the simple test could help improve early diagnosis of Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI), leading to early intervention.

This is particularly relevant, given that MCI can develop into Alzheimer’s disease in 30 to 50 percent of people, the researchers noted.

Diagnosing MCI usually involves lengthy neuropsychological assessments with tests of cognitive control and memory, along with questions about daily activities and mood. These costly tests require training, often take a lot of patient and clinician time, and can be impacted by factors such as the individual’s IQ, socio-economic status and even the testers themselves.

With an aging global population, and around 50 million people estimated to be living with dementia worldwide, there is an urgent need for a simpler test, researchers say.

For the study, 123 participants were asked to press a button whenever they saw a flash of light or heard a sound. At times, the flashes or sounds were presented alone, but at other times the two appeared simultaneously.

Participants included 51 healthy young adults, 49 healthy older adults, and 23 older adults with MCI.

The researchers, who were led by Professor Micah Murray from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, then extracted two measures about each person’s performance: Whether they were faster at detecting flashes or sound; and the extent to which they benefited from detecting an auditory-visual event versus either flashes or sounds.

Dr. Paul Matusz from the University of Lausanne explained that by using just these two measures, the team could accurately tell if a person was diagnosed with MCI using standard clinical tests.

“We are particularly excited about this work because it shows how very simple tests can help clinical practice by reaching a wider population, at a lower cost,” said Murray, a professor of Radiology and Clinical Neurosciences at the University Hospital Centre and University of Lausanne.

He adds that the new findings clarify the link between vision and hearing and their role in supporting memory function.

“It becomes increasingly clear that how preserved our cognitive skills are as we age depends on how intact our senses are,” he said. “This importantly extends our similar existing findings in school-age children.”

“Our findings open the exciting possibility that a simple perceptual task could be a valuable complementary screening and assessment tool for MCI,” added Dr. Trudi Edginton, a cognitive neuroscientist and clinical psychologist at City, University of London. “However, the test we introduced should not yet be considered as a substitute or replacement for tests currently used in clinical practice.”

She noted the research team is now designing new ways to validate this new screening tool, as well as “exploring the role of neurotransmitter systems in age-related and pathological changes in sensory and cognitive functions to inform early diagnosis and potential treatment options.”

The study was published in Scientific Reports.

Source: City University of London