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UWF researcher's device could detect early signs of dementia

Dr. James Arruda, professor in the Department: Psychology in the Usha Kundu, MD College of Health.
Bernard Leonard Wilchusky Jr./UWF
Dr. James Arruda, professor in the Department: Psychology in the Usha Kundu, MD College of Health.

A professor at the University of West Florida is close to getting a patent on a device that could detect early signs of dementia.

Scientists have spent decades searching for biomarkers that detect the early stages of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. And now it appears that may soon yield results.

“Well it is a ‘Holy Grail’” said Dr. James Arruda, a professor of psychology at UWF.

Before coming to Pensacola in 2004, Dr. Arruda was a faculty member of Mercer University. That’s where he began his research into Alzheimer’s dementia.

“That (research) has continued to this day, where I’ve expanded it to study a disorder called Mild Cognitive Impairment, which we now think is a risk factor or an early stage for Alzheimer’s dementia.”

Dr. Arruda’s research is now concentrating on finding a sign for Mild Cognitive Impairment so that patients could be treated before it becomes full-blown dementia.

Individuals with Mild Cognitive Impairment are usually 65 or older, and seem ordinary when given cognitive tests, measurements of language, decision making, even visual-spatial abilities.

“The one domain, however, that they might have difficulties with would be memory," said Dr. Arruda. "And so, the pattern that we typically see, one that would concern us a little bit, would be somebody that appears to be within normal limits on many of the cognitive domains with the exception of memory. And that sort of individual converts at a higher rate to Alzheimer’s dementia later on. Therefore that’s the sort of individual that we would want to identify using a biomarker, using neuro-psych testing. And then look at various treatments to see if we can prevent what might be Alzheimer’s dementia later on.”

And when Dr. Arruda talks about people with memory issues, he’s not talking about walking into the kitchen and forgetting why you’re there. Everyone does that on occasion. He’s talking about psychometric testing to see how a person does against an age-appropriate control measurement.

Dr. Arruda recently signed a consulting and licensing agreement with a California-based company, BIOPAC Systems, to collaborate on the development of a device that could be instrumental in finding that biomarker. Rather than look for a marker in bodily fluids, this device would be a much-less-invasive EEG, which would scan the brain looking for an anomaly.

“One of the earliest changes in the brains of individuals with either Mild Cognitive Impairment or Alzheimer’s dementia is a decline in a neurotransmitter called Acetylcholine. And that neuro-transmitter is actually very important for sensory processing. And so what we’ve done is we’ve come up with a device that’s capable of presenting light, strobe-flash stimuli to an individual, and then we can time-lock the EEG to it to see how the brain responds to the flash of light way back up in the visual system, in what we call the occipital lobe or the back part of the brain.”

And that neurotransmitter, Acetylcholine, is key to the brain’s response to that strobe flash.

Dr. Arruda says this is a sensitive and specific test for Mild Cognitive Impairment and Alzheimer’s dementia, which will be tested on a larger number of subjects later this year.

“I went out to California, Santa Barbara to work on this device with the company for about a month and a half, but I’ve been doing a lot of research at the University of West Florida for some time," he said.

"In fact, we even have a clinical trial scheduled for later this spring and the summer up at Brown University and Rhode Island Hospital up in New England, to be able to look at really well-defined mild cognitively impaired individuals and age-matched controls. We’ve pretty much honed in on the measure, we just want to be able to come out and say something a little bit more bold about it.”

Dr. Arruda and BIOPAC have applied for a patent on the device which should be completed within six months.

Bob Barrett has been a radio broadcaster since the mid 1970s and has worked at stations from northern New York to south Florida and, oddly, has been able to make a living that way. He began work in public radio in 2001. Over the years he has produced nationally syndicated programs such as The Environment Show and The Health Show for Northeast Public Radio's National Productions.