Emory University
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New web-based test can predict Alzheimer's

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A simple visual test developed at Emory is likely to predict the onset of Alzheimer's disease or mild cognitive impairment (MCI) three to six years before symptoms appear.

Researchers at Yerkes National Primate Research Center are fine-tuning a web-based test that gauges how long people view novel and repeat objects. The test can show whether a person is pre-symptomatic for cognitive decline or Alzheimer's.

"This could be the thing that helps with a huge problem facing the so-called silver tsunami," says Yerkes director Stuart Zola. "Hopefully, this will really have a positive impact on people's lives and on public health. Wouldn't it be wonderful if our grandchildren could grow up without the threat of Alzheimer's disease?"

During years of research studies, Zola and co-developers Elizabeth Buffalo (Yerkes, neurology) and Cecelia Manzanares (Yerkes, neuroscience) found that monkeys and people—even those without any cognitive impairment—who focused equally on both the novel and repeat objects all developed MCI or Alzheimer's within that three- to six-year window. People who already were diagnosed with MCI at the time of their testing and who focused on both objects equally went on to develop Alzheimer's.

"If they were pre-symptomatic at the time of testing, then they were already on a trajectory," Zola says.

The team, along with Eugene Agichtein (math and computer science), launched a company, Neurotrack, this past October to secure venture capital funding and to commercialize the technology. (The 2013 South by Southwest Interactive Festival named Neurotrack the year's top web-based health technology.) While the team would eventually like to see the technology used in the doctor's office, right now it is targeting pharmaceutical companies who could use the test to find people for clinical trials who are pre-symptomatic.

Clinical trials for Alzheimer's treatments are difficult, Zola says, because companies or institutions must either choose subjects who have no symptoms but whose status is uncertain as to whether they will develop Alzheimer's or choose people who are already symptomatic. "They may be overlooking a drug that could be useful because it's too late in the game to give it to Alzheimer's patients." The test developed by Zola's team provides the ability for the first time to select people who are pre-symptomatic but are on a trajectory for cognitive decline within several years and people who are pre-symptomatic and are not on that trajectory.

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