Early onset alzheimer's

A new smartphone app is peering into the eyes of patients to determine if they might have Alzheimer’s disease or other neurological disorders.  

The app developed by researchers at the University of California at San Diego uses a near-infrared camera built into newer smartphones to record closeups of the eye. The camera tracks how an individual’s pupil changes size and uses the measurements to assess the individual’s cognitive abilities.

“While there is still a lot of work to be done, I am excited about the potential for using this technology to bring neurological screening out of clinical lab settings and into homes,” Colin Barry, UC San Diego electrical and computer engineering Ph.D. student and study co-author Colin Barry said.  “We hope that this opens the door to novel explorations of using smartphones to detect and monitor potential health problems earlier on.” 

Researchers say pupil size can provide valuable information about an individual’s neurological functions. It can increase when a person performs a difficult cognitive task or hears an unexpected sound. Measuring changes in the diameter of a pupil can be done through a pupil response test, which can monitor for neurological diseases and disorders. But those tests require expensive equipment, making it cost-prohibitive to perform outside a laboratory  or clinic. 

Engineers at UC San Diego’s Digital Health Lab collaborated with researchers at UC San Diego’s Center for Mental Health Technology to develop the more affordable and accessible app. The researchers said the app’s measurements were comparable to those taken by a pupillometer, a more sophisticated device used in labs and clinics. 

Approximately 6 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. A recent study found about half of older adults had a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or related dementia shortly before death.