I have two grandparents who are afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease. Unfortunately, in both situations we didn’t find out that they had the disease until they were both showing strong symptoms. In the case of my grandfather, we found out when he was traveling back to India from the U.S. and forgot to get on the plane from Mumbai to Bangalore. He was found wandering the streets of Mumbai with no shoes or wallet and no idea where he was. Neurotrack is a health startup that is going to change the way we diagnose Alzheimer’s and could help prevent what happened to my grandfather from happening to anyone else.
The startup, which graduated from Rock Health’s Boston class, has developed a computer-based cognitive test that can detect the risk of Alzheimer’s Disease up to six years prior to the onset of symptoms. The science behind Neurotrack’s technology stems from 30 years of research that eventually discovered that the hippocampus is the first structure in the brain to be affected by Alzheimer’s. And in most cases, the disease is not detected when this happens.
For CEO Elli Kaplan, this research hits close to home. Like me, she had two grandparents who suffered from Alzheimer’s. After hearing some of the results from early studies at Emory University a few years back, she became intrigued and teamed up with the group of scientists to figure out how they could actually bring this to market.
Here’s how it works: participants take a 15- to 17-minute test on a monitor, in which they watch a series of images. The test relies on humans’ innate preference for novelty as a mechanism for tracking recognition memory, which is controlled by the hippocampus. The monitor tacks how the eyes reach to familiar images and unfamiliar images to detect whether a participant’s recognition memory is impaired. Other data points include how much time a person spends looking at novel images versus familiar images.
In the initial study, 92 people participated, with a median age of 70. If you score below a certain threshold, there is a 100 percent chance you will develop Alzheimer’s in three to six years. The tests have been conclusive.
While there is a genetic test that will show that you have a genetic mutation that could give you Alzheimer’s, the highest percentage chance that test gives you is 14 percent.
Even having a three- to six-year head start on Alzheimer’s can be game-changing from diagnostic, treatment and personal points of view. Kaplan explains that the primary reason many drugs are failing to treat Alzheimer’s is because there hasn’t been an early diagnostic test. In fact, 80 percent of people in Alzheimer’s drug trials fail because they either have a different type of dementia or they are too far along to participate. The startup is currently also working with pharmaceutical companies to help populate clinical trials.
Once an individual is diagnosed early, Kaplan says there are other ways in which a patient could treat the disease. For example, she says that studies show that diet and exercise can help stave off Alzheimer’s. While Neurotrack hasn’t been distributed commercially, there are a number of clinical studies being done with the technology at Emory, Johns Hopkins and Massachusetts General Hospital.
“It truly is matter of time before Alzheimer’s becomes a global epidemic,” Kaplan says. The startup is receiving requests daily from people who want to take the test. One individual wants to fly her father out from India to take it.
Investors have caught wind of what Neurotrack is doing, as well. The startup just closed a $2 million round of funding led by Founders Fund and Social+Capital. Kaplan says the investment is going to be used to build out the team, run additional trials and to refine the product.
It’s clear from talking to Kaplan that she and her team have ambitious goals and are tackling a huge problem, which doesn’t yet have a cure. But they are already helping many who didn’t know they had the disease cope with Alzheimer’s earlier. And from someone who has seen the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s first hand, I believe Neurotrack could change the lives of many families across the world. It’s going to be interesting to see how software, hardware and mobile technologies are merging to change the way we diagnose and treat disease–Neurotrack is certainly part of this new trend.