A computer-based test that detects impaired cognition has been developed by researchers from Monash University's Psychology department and could be used to identify people who are affected by drugs, chronic fatigue or even hangovers. The test, which measures cognition — the ability of brain cells to talk and connect to each other effectively and quickly — is also being trialled on heart surgery patients at Monash Medical Centre to determine how their cognitive abilities are affected by surgery.
Associate Professor Stephen Robinson from Monash's Department of Psychology said it could also be used to screen elderly drivers, evaluate head injuries in sportspeople or detect impairment in high-functioning groups such as pilots, where a decrease in cognition could have disastrous effects. With colleague Dr Greg Yelland, Dr Robinson is also evaluating whether the test could be used to detect people at high risk of developing Alzheimer's, raising the possibility of early treatment for the disease.
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The test was developed because existing tests lacked sensitivity and some could not be re-used for up to six months because test subjects could 'learn' the appropriate response to give, Dr Robinson said. He developed the test with Dr Yelland and doctoral researchers Mr Chris Hutchison and Mr Tim Friedman. The test, which takes about five minutes, is awaiting patenting. Monash Commercial, the university's commercialisation arm, is seeking commercial partners who could help bring the test to the marketplace. "It is a visual discrimination test that requires the test subject to make a decision based on what they see on the screen," Dr Robinson said. "The information is presented to them so fast that they are not even aware they have seen it, so they are responding to things that are only available to the subconscious. "Where I see the real strengths of our test is in people who are undergoing some sort of clinical treatment either with drugs or after surgery.
The study at Monash Medical Centre with Professor Julian Smith is looking at the effects of various cardiac surgeries on cognition. "People who have any sort of impairment perform a lot worse on this test. For example, we have used the test to look at the cognition of people with HIV and have tested it alongside the gold standard psychological tests for cognitive impairment in that group. Our test was as good as any others on the market at predicting the cognitive impairment of HIV patients." The test has also been trialled on 90 people aged between 60 and 85. "Within that group we have detected a subgroup who, by most tests, show a mild decline in cognition, whereas our test has revealed a significant impairment," Dr Robinson said. "Subsequent testing has revealed that some of the people in this subgroup have progressed to Alzheimer's disease." However, Dr Robinson said it would be some time before the test could be used to assess whether a test subject might be in the early stages of Alzheimer's.
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