The race is currently on to develop an effective and simple diagnostic tool to help identify patients suffering from mild cognitive impairment (MCI). A new study is suggesting that a simple at-home test, administered through a laptop or smartphone, could accurately diagnose cases of MCI, allowing for early interventions to help prevent further cognitive decline.

Mild cognitive impairment is a condition that has only recently been clinically defined. It is generally regarded as a moderate form of age-related cognitive decline, and it often manifests as significant memory loss. While MCI in and of itself can be a straight-forward and innocuous age-related condition, it is also known to be a major precursor to the onset of more dramatic conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer's disease. In fact, 30 to 50 percent of those diagnosed with MCI ultimately delvelop Alzheimer's.

So, identifying MCI early on is vital in giving clinicians the best opportunity to tackle further cognitive decline, but unfortunately there is no simple way to diagnose the condition. Currently, the best methods involve intensive observational work with a clinician and a barrage of neuropsychological tests. From experimental blood tests to strange smell tests, there are a variety of novel diagnostic methods being explored to help better diagnose MCI as early as possible.

The latest innovation, from a team of international researchers, utilizes a simple multi-sensory test to effectively evaluate whether a patient suffers from MCI. The test is deceptively simple, asking subjects to press a button whenever they see a flash of light or hear a sound. The study concluded that MCI could be diagnosable by analyzing the speed at which a person detected a sound or a flash, or a sound and a flash at the same time.

The test is based on theories suggesting that individuals with MCI process sensory stimuli in slightly different ways to healthy individuals. For example, MCI subjects are often more auditory dominant in tests compared to healthy individuals. These slight alterations in sensory profiles were shown to be able to accurately identify subjects that had been previously diagnosed with MCI in regular clinical tests.

"We are particularly excited about this work because it shows how very simple tests can help clinical practice by reaching a wider population, at a lower cost," says Micah Murray, one of the lead researchers on the project. "We are happy that our findings clarify the link between our vision and hearing and their role in supporting memory (dys-)function; it becomes increasingly clear that how preserved our cognitive skills are as we age depends on how intact our senses are."

More work needs to be done on the project before something like a smartphone app that diagnoses dementia could be released, but the early data is extremely promising for a cheap and easy way to offer screening and assessment for early-onset cognitive decline. Moving forward, the research team is looking to further validate the veracity of the sensory test while also examining other sensory functions that could act as signs of age-related neurological decline.

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.