You have just improved our understanding of dementia and taken us one small step closer to better managing this terrible disease. After 5 short minutes popping balloons, choosing colours and drawing out numbers, you may be wondering what any of this has to do with dementia. You may also feel a small sense of pride for having earned a badge — validating a personality trait that you always knew you had. The badge highlights the specific tasks you excelled at.
Pianist (The Symbols Digit Modalities Test)
If you have ever sat your Grade 2 Piano Exam, you will recall the nauseating feeling of trepidation that grips you before the toughest part of the exam: sight reading. Hopefully, Mindset’s symbols task, though it tests similar brain functions, was a less daunting challenge. The human, like any other organism, is a stimulus-processing machine. From the time that our sensory organs develop within the comfortable confines of a warm womb, we have been experiencing stimuli, processing the information and generating an output. We all know that dementia can affect the way that we think, feel and move. To make it marginally more jargonistic, it affects our perception, processing and response.
Through the Symbols Task, Mindset is able to track variations in performance and build a profile of an individual’s ability to process visual information and coordinate a motor response. Your performance is largely dependent on your understanding of the task, perception of the symbols presented and drawing skills, thereby testing a neat blend of cognitive, kinaesthetic and motor functions. As Mindset’s AI accumulates experience, it will be able to identify subtle variations in performance and spot patterns indicative of the early stages of dementia. This can enable the delivery of much needed early care such that the former concert pianist is not robbed of their passion by dementia.
Artist (The Stroop Task)
Dementia is often painted, with rather broad brush strokes, as primarily being a memory issue. However, deficits in attention are also a core component of the disease and have been observed during its early stages. The Stroop Task has come to the fore as a powerful way to detect the early stages of dementia. Having completed the test, you will likely have experienced the tension (maybe even frustration) of disentangling your language processing from your visual processing. A rather peculiar, and surprisingly difficult task.
To perform well in the stroop test, you must remember the assigned task, process two forms of interfering information, identify one type of information as pertinent to the task whilst disregarding the other and, finally, select the correct option in good time. You don’t need to be well-versed in the annals of neuroanatomy to see that this simple task tests multiple brain areas — in particular, those situated within the frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is responsible for the, so called, ‘higher functions’ of human behaviour such as impulse control, judgement and problem solving. A subtle deficit identified by the stroop test can catastrophically snowball into difficulties sticking to plans and resisting antisocial urges. Early identification, therefore, can help families and carers to take simple measures and develop an understanding that is more conducive to maximising a patient’s quality of life and independence.
Detective (The Balloons Task)
We all have that one friend with minus-8 prescription glasses who has paid £300 to sand down their thick-framed behemoths into something marginally more chic. We may laugh, put on their glasses and give ourselves an instant karmic headache. The importance of basic vision is obvious to everyone, irrespective of their refractive capabilities. Vision, however, is considerably more nuanced than just reading to the 7th line of an optician’s Snellen chart.
The balloon task, by asking you to engage with your immediate environment, assesses a vital aspect of brain function that brings much strife to people with dementia and can put them in considerable danger. An inability to recognise objects and place them accurately in our perception of space can result in calamitous outcomes. A person living with dementia may have the eyesight of a 25-year-old fighter pilot, however, their ability to correctly process visual information may be compromised. It can result in a patient becoming disorientated and wandering onto a busy road or a mistaken step and a fall down the stairs. Furthermore, issues with orientation have been identified as a useful indicator of decline in Alzheimer’s disease. By identifying issues with visuospatial perception, simple measures such as better lighting and optimising sensory aids can prevent much morbidity.
The overarching purpose of the AI used by Mindset is to process enormous volumes of data and spot patterns. This is, in essence, what doctors have been doing since the practice of medicine began. When faced with worsening short-term memory, word-finding issues and disorientation in an 80-year-old patient, your brain recognises that this pattern could be dementia. However, processing 30,000 data points in 10 seconds, accounting for the speed, fluidity and accuracy of a trembling finger on a screen, is something we can only do with the help of AI. Furthermore, like a doctor who, over time, gains experience and refines their diagnostic skills, Mindset’s AI also gains experience and becomes better at recognising the early signs of dementia with the more test subjects it encounters.
At present, there are several hurdles that stand between a person showing symptoms of dementia and receiving a formal diagnosis. It requires arranging appointments and transport to GP surgeries, memory clinics and pharmacies. Even those of us who are fortunate enough to be able-bodied and able-minded may put similar life admin to the back of our minds as it gradually slips lower and lower on our to-do lists. We can only imagine how much more difficult it would be for people experiencing the early symptoms of dementia who often have difficulties planning ahead. Through #Mindset4Dementia, we edge closer to being able to screen for dementia in the comfort of your living room. Not only will this improve accessibility and enable more patients to be screened for dementia, it will also reduce the anxiety that people often feel upon entering an unfamiliar clinical environment. Dementia is an unsettling diagnosis, especially during the early stages. Having sufficient insight to realise that your brain, the foundation of your persona, the basis of your existence and experience, is slowly slipping out of your control is beyond frightening. However, with early recognition, people with dementia can receive medical treatment that can improve their symptoms and life-changing counselling about how to live with their condition, make the necessary adjustments to their environment, and regain some sense of control.
Your input has created data points. It has shed more light on previously nebulous patterns of movement and thinking that will enable us to sensitively identify a person experiencing the early stages of dementia. By completing the tasks on Mindset, you have given thousands of people in the future an opportunity. The opportunity to receive much needed care during the early stages of a deadly disease.
On behalf of the Mindset team, thank you.