Manitoba students use virtual reality game, blood test to detect Alzheimer's

A team of University of Manitoba students hope their virtual reality game and blood test will be a game changer in early detection of Alzheimer's disease.

Team Biohack competes for $10,000 Game Changer prize on Thursday

Team Biohack designed a virtual reality test for Alzheimer's disease

8 years ago
Duration 2:17
Team Biohack is one of seven teams who are finalists in the U of M's Game Changer competition. The contest gives university students and post-doctoral fellows from all disciplines an opportunity to identify global problems and work in teams to devise innovative solutions.

A team of University of Manitoba students hope their virtual reality game and blood test will be a game changer in early detection of Alzheimer's disease. 

Biohack — the students' team name in the university's Game Changer competition — combines the efforts of engineering and biology students to create a new approach to diagnosing Alzheimer's disease.

Game Changer challenges students to find solutions to global problems, with a $10,000 grand prize winner to be announced at the contest's finale Thursday.

Biohack members Ahmad Byagowi, an electrical engineering student, and Paul White, a biomedical engineering student, developed a virtual reality game that tests patients' spatial cognition, while biology student Jesslyn Janssen is developing a blood test that provides additional evidence for a diagnosis.

The virtual reality game designed by Byagowi and White has patients remember and follow instructions in a virtual space, they said.

"We're looking for how many errors you make," said White. "We want to check to see if you go to the correct floor, if you get the correct side — whether it's on the left or right — and we want to check to see if you go to the correct wall."

​A score is assigned based on how many instructions the user follows correctly. That score is an indicator of the patient's spatial cognition — their ability to navigate an everyday environment. Deteriorating spatial cognition may be an early sign of Alzheimer's disease.

"We've been working for the last five years on using virtual reality to assess … spatial cognition," Byagowi said.

Janssen's part of the project is a blood test that is similar to a glucose test for diabetes. 

The test looks for too much of a protein called Amyloid beta, which is in the blood of people with Alzheimer's disease, Janssen said.

"I think we've all experienced something in our lives that sort of made us want to fight [against] the condition and make a difference. We've all had someone special [who's affected]," she said. "We hope that … we can battle the condition, and hopefully some sort of treatment or some sort of therapy can be used to at least slow the progression down and hopefully potentially find a cure one day too."

The two tests can be used together to produce more accurate results. Some people who use the virtual reality game get motion sickness, which affects their performance. Others who receive the blood test sometimes receive false positives, Byagowi said. 

Though Biohack's innovations won't cure Alzheimer's disease, early detection means those with the disease can take medication sooner, White said.

"It doesn't slow the deterioration at all, it just allows you to maintain your quality of life for as long as possible," said White. "It's the difference between a person having to go to a nursing home sooner rather than later."

Biohack is a finalist in the university's Game Changer competition. The final presentations and voting on a people's choice award will take place Thursday from 4-11 p.m. at the university's Fort Garry Campus in the Engineering and Information Technology Complex atrium.

The grand prize winner receives $10,000.