Targeting dementia with help from Doc Hollywood

The hi-tech dementia glove evaluates hand movements of Parkinson's patients at Leeds General Infirmary
The hi-tech dementia glove evaluates hand movements of Parkinson's patients at Leeds General Infirmary
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FILM-GOERS have marvelled at many advances over recent years as computers have allowed actors to bring digital characters to life with uncanny realism in Hollywood movies including The Hobbit and Avatar.

The use of motion capture technology has prompted a revolution in movie-making but now leading researchers in Yorkshire hope to employ the state-of-the-art technique to make advances in medicine.

In a trial being launched in the region, patients with Parkinson’s disease will be asked to wear special gloves containing motion sensors to track their movements in a simple test.

Doctors hope the technology will help them pinpoint subtle changes in movement invisible to the human eye in those developing dementia linked to the illness. Around 127,000 people in the UK suffer from Parkinson’s disease and each year around 10 per cent go on to develop dementia.

Experts currently carry out a series of memory tests to diagnose Parkinson’s-related dementia but often these are performed when the condition has already developed.

Instead, specialists in Leeds hope to be able to make a diagnosis earlier using the technology dubbed the dementia glove. No treatments are currently available for dementia but doctors say if therapies were developed, it would mean patients could be treated before symptoms, including memory loss, progress.

The work is part of research in Leeds to tackle neurological illnesses, among them dementia, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy, which it is hoped will be significantly expanded by the £2m Yorkshire Brain Disease Centre appeal.

Jane Alty, a consultant neurologist with an interest in movement disorders including Parkinson’s, based at Leeds General Infirmary, said the glove measured movement in precise detail as patients performed a simple reach and grasp test to lift up a beaker and put it down.

In healthy people, the movements are subtly different from those with Parkinson’s, whose movement tends to be slower, but in turn those with dementia have further differences linked to visualising space.

Dr Alty said: “If we could predict dementia, it would be useful for patients to have that prognosis early and give them the right access to treatment. The changes in movement are very subtle and you can’t immediately see them with the naked eye but the glove has movement sensors which picks them up.”

In a further major advance, experts from the department of electronics at York University have developed mathematical techniques to analyse the movement data using evolutionary algorithms developed with the help of funding from the Wellcome Trust and the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Over time, the software learns to pinpoint the minute differences between people with and without dementia. Stephen Smith, senior lecturer in electronics at York, said: “Measuring the movement is one thing but the special algorithms have learned differences between patients with dementia and those without rather than being told what to look for.”

Dr Alty added: “It means we could find a way of screening for dementia earlier which we know is a growing problem and which we need better ways of diagnosing.”

NINETY people will take part in the initial trial of the technology. Computer predictions of those with dementia will be compared to the results of standard tests in memory and thinking to see how accurate they are.

About a quarter of people with Parkinson’s disease have dementia caused by the condition. Four in five of Parkinson’s patients who live for 20 years will develop it.

Predictions suggest the overall burden from dementia will grow by 25 per cent by 2025 when one million are predicted to have it in the UK.

The Yorkshire Brain Disease Centre appeal aims to develop the range and breadth of research in Leeds by recruiting more staff and building infrastructure.