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Body-worn sensors used by people with mild Alzheimer’s to assess walking could offer a cost-effective way to detect the disease early and monitor its progression.

Two computer screens showing data of a man walking behind. © Newcastle University

Researchers working on Dementias Platform UK’s Deep and Frequent Phenotyping study have revealed that the wearable devices used both at home and in clinic could offer a low-cost efficient way of monitoring the early progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

Finding the signs of change that take place early on in the development of Alzheimer’s disease, such as changes in walking characteristics and behaviours, is a key focus for dementia research at the moment. The Deep and Frequent study – a multicentre study within DPUK – is the first major study to take a whole range of different measures, including gait, in order to uncover which are the best early indicators that someone may have the disease.

Scientists are looking for effective, non-invasive tests to show whether someone is in the very earliest stages of Alzheimer’s disease – the best time to offer patients the chance to take part in clinical trials of possible treatments.

Experts say assessing gait with body-worn sensors is a good way to assess changes in how a person walks and has the potential for affordable, multicentre and home-based monitoring that benefits patients, clinical management and the efficiency of clinical trials.

New diagnostic tool for dementia

The ability to assess gait and walking behaviours in all aspects of life is a major step forwards in data collection for dementia studies and clinical trials.

Lynn Rochester, Professor of Human Movement Science at Newcastle University – one of DPUK’s 18 partners – is one of DPUK’s experts on gait and wearable technology and leads this work.

Professor Rochester said: “How someone walks is not routinely used in clinical trials because the tools needed are typically restricted to specialised labs and one-off testing, missing subtle fluctuations in symptoms. Wearable sensors at home and in the clinic have the potential to change dementia research. This is an exciting project to be involved in. Gait assessed in this way could contribute to delivery of more cost-effective clinical trials and may encourage investment and increase the number of such studies in the future."

Clinical use of body-worn sensors in annual health assessments could track gait changes over time and act as a red flag for cognitive impairment.
- Professor Lynn Rochester, Professor of Human Movement Science at Newcastle University

Targeting people early

An estimated 46.8m people worldwide were living with dementia in 2015, and with an ageing population in most developed countries, predictions suggest this number may double by 2050.

Alzheimer’s disease starts long before it is noticed by those with the disease or their doctor. Previous studies have shown that changes to the brain occur as early as 10 to 20 years before symptoms arise. If experts can identify the signs that are present in this very early stage, there may be the chance of treating the disease earlier, which is vital to prevent damage to people’s memory and thinking.

The Deep and Frequent Phenotyping study is an extensive series of tests including brain scans, gait assessments, cognitive tests and a range of blood tests on 250 people.  Researchers are looking for efficient ways to recognise the early stages of the disease and those who may be suitable for trials of possible treatments.