A technology capable of diagnosing Alzheimer's disease long before its symptoms appear won an honour for innovation at last week's South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, in the US state of Texas.
Neurotrack, which uses eye tracking to achieve a claimed 100 per cent success rate, clinched the health technologies category in the SXSW Accelerator competition as the festival's interactive segment drew to a close.
"It's a computer-based visual cognitive test that is able to diagnose Alzheimer's disease six years before symptoms appear," said Elli Kaplan, chief executive officer of the upstart based in the US state of Virginia. "Today the only way to diagnose Alzheimer's is once full symptoms are in existence, but that's years after irreparable damage has already taken place."
Initial users of Neurotrack will be pharmaceutical manufacturers. They will employ it in their development of drugs to prevent, or at least slow the progression of, the most common form of dementia, she added.
But in time, Kaplan said, it would be rolled out to doctors' offices and research hospitals - and potentially, a smartphone and tablet app that individuals can use as well.
SXSW Accelerator is a showcase for up-and-coming news, social, mobile, web, entertainment, health and music technologies.
One of its 2010 winners, the voice recognition software Siri, is now standard equipment in Apple iPhones.
Other winners on Tuesday included mobile advocacy app Phone2Action; Plotter, a social network for maps; mobile typing assistant Syntellia; Wanderu, a website for young budget travellers; and MakieLab, a 3D printing toy and game service.
The Accelerator winner for music technologies will be announced later this week, as the music portion of SXSW - with more than 1,000 bands playing live around the Texas state capital - kicks off and the film segment continues.
Kaplan, a Harvard Business School alumnus and mother-of-two who lost two grandparents to Alzheimer's, said Neurotrack was developed in collaboration with Emory University and a crack team of neuroscientists.
It comes in two versions. One uses an infrared camera, and the other a simple computer mouse. They challenge the subject to compare images - some new, some not - that appear briefly on a screen.
"By monitoring the way a person moves their eyes, and watching how they view novel images versus familiar images, we're able to detect perturbations that exist on the hippocampus," Kaplan said, referring to the part of the brain that handles memory. "Every human being has an instinctive preference for novelty and that's one of the things that we are testing," she added.
The hippocampus is the first part of the brain to be impacted by Alzheimer's, which is thought to affect as many as 5.1 million people in the United States alone. Kaplan said the claim of 100 per cent accuracy was based on a large study, based at Emory University, that followed the progress of participants, some of whom developed the disease, over an extended period.
Neurotrack's intention is to market a version for physicians that would cost somewhere between US$300 and US$1,000.
As for a version for home use, Kaplan said: "We're actually working on this. We are not very far away from a technology that will work on your [mobile] phone or on your tablet." The results would go directly to a doctor who would be best placed to reveal them face to face.