Pioneered by a team at the University of Cambridge, the technology was even able to sort patients with early signs of Alzheimer’s from those with other cognitive impairments.
As well as potentially revolutionising clinical testing for the disease in its earliest stages, there are hopes the innovation could help to develop monitoring and diagnostic tools that can be built into everyday devices.
More than 520,000 people in the UK have dementia caused by Alzheimer’s disease and the figure is expected to rise as the population ages.
Lead researcher Dr Dennis Chan said: “We know that Alzheimer’s affects the brain long before symptoms become apparent.
“We’ve wanted to do this for years, but it’s only now that VR technology has evolved to the point that we can readily undertake this research in patients.”
The Cambridge team collaborated with University College London to build on research by one of their professors, John O’Keefe, who was awarded a Nobel Prize for the discovery of the brain’s “navigation system” in 2014.
A key component of the “internal satnav” is a part of the brain known as the entorhinal cortex, which is one of the first regions to be damaged in Alzheimer’s.
Defects in the cortex could explain why getting lost is one of the first symptoms of the disease, although such changes are hard to pick up with traditional clinical tests.
Using a virtual reality headset, the team gave 45 patients with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) a navigation test by having them walk around a simulated environment.
MCI can by an early indicator for Alzheimer’s, although it can also be caused by anxiety and the normal ageing process. So as part of the study samples of spinal fluid were taken and analysed for biomarkers for risk of underlying Alzheimer’s disease.
The researchers found the 12 patients with the biomarkers performed worst out of the test subjects.
When compared to a battery of tests currently in use, the virtual reality system was better at differentiating between those with high or low levels of risk.
Dr Chan said: “These results suggest a VR test of navigation may be better at identifying early Alzheimer’s disease than tests we use at present in clinic and in research studies.”
There are hopes the findings, which are being published in the journal Brain, could help clinical trials of future drugs aimed at slowing down, or even halting, progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
The same principles of testing navigation could also be used for diagnosing and monitoring Alzheimer’s disease with everyday gadgets.
“We’re getting to the point where everyday tech can be used to spot the warning signs of the disease well before we become aware of them,” he said.
“We live in a world where mobile devices are almost ubiquitous, and so app-based approaches have the potential to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease at minimal extra cost and at a scale way beyond that of brain scanning and other current diagnostic approaches.”