Like the vast majority of progressive diseases, dementia can be more effectively treated if it is detected at an early stage.
Early diagnosis means intervention and treatment can be much more proactive and preventative, rather than 'firefighting' the debilitating effects after a disease has already taken hold. In the UK it is estimated that someone develops dementia every three minutes, most commonly through the onset of Alzheimer's Disease.
It is caused by faulty proteins which build up in the brain, gradually reducing its ability to function effectively. The problem is that by the time someone consults their GP presenting the more obvious signs of dementia it is likely their brain has already been under attack from the illness for 10 or even 20 years. By that stage it is almost impossible to treat with any significant measure of success.
However there are a number of physical clues which could help with a much earlier detection of Alzheimer's – symptoms which are easy to pass off as other minor ailments or simply the effects of old age. If these clues, known as 'biomarkers', can be spotted and recognised for what they are, then early and proactive treatment of Alzheimer's could improve the quality of life for millions of people.
Now British researchers are working with hundreds of volunteers to develop new ways to detect and recognise these very early biomarkers long before more obvious symptoms emerge. By doing so they hope to open up new ways for treating Alzheimer's and helping arrest its development before the brain suffers serious damage.
The new research is funded by the National Institute for Health Research and the Medical Research Council. It will involve around 250 volunteers who will undergo a wide range of tests, both metal and physical, on a very regular basis. Crucially, and unlike previous studies, these are not people already diagnosed with Alzheimer's at a fairy advanced stage.
Researcher Simon Lovestone told BBR Radio 4's Today Programme: "We do know that Alzheimer's Disease starts in the brain at least 10 years before there are any clinical symptoms. If we could do the trials in that period you would effectively have a prevention."
Elaborating on what the research with volunteers would involve, he explained: "We're basically going to throw the book at people. We're going to do every single test that anybody has ever thought of, and some completely innovative things, and as well as doing loads of different things we're going to do them very often."
Another problem for researchers is that when people undergo certain tests under laboratory conditions the results can be skewed because the subject is concentrating much harder on the task in hand than they would normally do. For example, one of the early biomarkers for dementia is a very subtle change in the way people walk, known as their 'gait'. Even if people notice this, it is easy to associate it with the general effects of ageing.
If a volunteer is asked to walk in a lab they will concentrate fully on walking, when ordinarily it is something they do automatically, requiring almost no conscious thought. The new research will involve some volunteers using cheap wearable technology which monitors and records the way they move while going about their everyday lives. Downloading and analysing the results should give a much clearer picture of whether a change in gait is a reliable marker for dementia and how it could be flagged up as such.
It is hoped that over a period of time the research, using a wide range of tests and techniques, will pinpoint some which merit more in-depth and specific investigation.
As more people live longer, dementia is a growing problem, thought to affect almost 47 million people worldwide. If new ways can be found to reliably detect the disease much earlier it could greatly improve the quality of life for millions of people.