Published: 05 September 2023
NIHR has awarded £1.9 million in funding for the development of a new app to monitor brain health in older people.
Researchers at the University of Exeter are running a trial on the app, known as REACTIVE. The aim of this study is to help reach people with early cognitive impairment who currently do not get seen by a GP or memory clinic. This is to ensure that those who are in most need are seen as a priority.
Spotting early cognitive impairment
Changes in brain function such as memory, attention and problem-solving can be an early sign of dementia. These changes are subtle and it can be difficult for patients and doctors to pick them up. This means that people with early symptoms do not receive any support or treatment. Doctors are in need of a tool for tracking people’s brain health and deciding when someone needs a full assessment. The development of this app will help fill this need. This tool is particularly important now as more promising treatments and lifestyle changes are becoming available that could help delay dementia if it’s diagnosed at an early stage.
Older people who join the study will be able to download the app and complete regular brain tests. They can also fill in information about their health and lifestyle. The app also includes a set of brain training games that are proven to maintain brain health. The app will then analyse the data and send it to the study participants’ GPs. This will enable doctors to identify people who should come into clinics for further assessment.
A three-year trial will run to see how the app is used by patients and doctors. It will also see how well it detects if someone is developing dementia. This will be determined by collecting brain scans and blood samples. The researchers will also look at the cost-effectiveness of the app, the risks and benefits and how to communicate cognitive data to patients. They will also investigate how to introduce the app in the NHS.
Anne Corbett, Associate Professor of Dementia Research and PROTECT Study Lead at the University of Exeter, said: “We know that 99 per cent of people with early signs of problems with their memory and brain health are not seen by a doctor. Yet these are the people who will benefit the most from early assessment, diagnosis, and treatment. Computerised tests of brain health are far more sensitive and accurate than traditional paper-and-pencil tests and using an app means we can reach large numbers of people in an affordable way.
“This programme of research is a major step forward towards better brain health for older adults, harnessing the best technology to support people and doctors alike. It will give us vital information about how to fill the current gaps in healthcare in ageing and provide a valuable new tool to improve health and wellbeing for older adults in the NHS.”
The PROTECT Study
The app is being developed as part of PROTECT, an online study open to anyone aged 40 and over. In PROTECT, annual questionnaires on detailed lifestyle factors combine with cognitive testing, to determine what keeps the brain sharp in later life.
The PROTECT study is part of the NIHR Exeter Biomedical Research Centre’s (BRC) world-leading research into neurodegeneration.