April 16, 2024

A smartphone app could help detect a leading cause of early-onset dementia in people at high risk of developing it, data suggests.

Scientists have shown that cognitive tests conducted via a smartphone app are at least as sensitive in detecting early signs of frontotemporal dementia in people with a genetic predisposition to the condition than medical evaluations performed in clinics.

Frontotemporal dementia is a neurological disorder that often manifests in mid-life, where the part of the brain responsible for skills such as the ability to plan ahead and prioritize tasks, filter distractions and control impulses shrinks as the disease progresses.

About a third of such cases have a genetic cause, but research into the condition has been hampered by problems with early diagnosis and difficulty tracking how people respond to treatments that may only be effective during the early stages of the disease.

“Most patients with frontotemporal dementia are diagnosed relatively late in the disease, because they are young, and their symptoms are mistaken for psychiatric disorders,” said the study’s senior author, Prof Adam Boxer, at the University of California, San Francisco. said.

Smartphones are already attracting interest as a tool for the diagnosis and assessment of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases. To investigate its utility in frontotemporal dementia, Boxer and his colleagues collaborated with the US-based software company Datacubed Health to develop an application that could record people’s speech while they were engaged in various cognitive tests, including executive functioning assessments.

“We also created tests of walking, balance and delayed movements, as well as different aspects of language,” said Dr. Adam Staffaroni, a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, and the study’s first author.

They tested the app in 360 adults with a high genetic risk of developing frontotemporal dementia, including some who had not yet developed any obvious symptoms.

The research, published in JAMA Network Openfound that the app can accurately detect dementia in such individuals, and can be even more sensitive to the earliest stages of the condition than gold standard neuropsychological evaluations usually performed in clinics.

While there are no immediate plans to make the app available to the public, Staffaroni said it could help boost research into the condition.

More than 30 such clinical trials are underway or in the planning stages, including trials of therapies that may help slow the progression of the disease in some gene carriers. “A major barrier has been a lack of outcome measures that are easily collected and sensitive to treatment effects in the early stages of the disease.”

Regular personal assessments are also burdensome for patients, carers and clinicians. “We hope that smartphone assessments will facilitate new trials of promising therapies,” Staffaroni said.

“Ultimately, the app could be used to monitor treatment effects, replacing many or most in-person visits to clinical trial sites.”

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