Technology to detect Alzheimer’s takes SXSW prize


Thu, Mar 14, 2013 - Page 15

Technology capable of diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease long before its symptoms appear won a coveted honor for innovation on Tuesday at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival.

Neurotrack, which uses eye tracking to achieve a claimed 100 percent success rate, clinched the health technologies category in the SXSW Accelerator competition as the festival’s interactive segment drew to a close.

“It’s a computer-based visual cognitive test that is able to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease six years before symptoms appear,” said Elli Kaplan, chief executive officer of the Richmond, Virginia-based upstart.

“Today the only way to diagnose Alzheimer’s is once full symptoms are in existence,” Kaplan said, “but that’s years after irreparable damage has already taken place.”

Initial users of Neurotrack will be pharmaceutical manufacturers to help them develop drugs to prevent, or at least slow the progression of, the most common form of dementia, she said.

However, in time, it will be rolled out to doctor’s offices and research hospitals — and potentially, a smartphone and tablet app that individuals can use as well, Kaplan said.

SXSW Accelerator is a showcase for up-and-coming news, social, mobile, Web, entertainment, health and music technologies. One of its 2010 winners, the voice recognition software Siri, has become standard equipment in Apple iPhones.

Other winners on Tuesday included the mobile advocacy app Phone2Action; Plotter, a social network for maps; mobile typing assistant Syntellia; Wanderu, a Web site for young budget travelers; and MakieLab, a 3D printing toy and game service.

The Accelerator winner for music technologies will be announced later this week, as the music portion of SXSW — with more than 1,000 bands playing live around the Texas state capital — begins and the film segment continues.

Kaplan, a Harvard Business School alumnus and mother-of-two who lost two grandparents to Alzheimer’s, said Neurotrack was developed in collaboration with Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia and a crack team of neuroscientists.

It comes in two versions, one using an infrared camera and the other a simple computer mouse, and challenges the subject to compare images — some new, some not — that appear briefly on a screen.

“By monitoring the way a person moves their eyes, and watching how they view novel images versus familiar images, we’re able to detect perturbations that exist on the hippocampus,” Kaplan said, referring to the part of the brain that handles memory.

Neurotrack’s intention is to market a version for physicians that would cost somewhere between US$300 and US$1,000, which compares favorably to non-medical productivity software.

“We are not very far away from a technology that will work on your [mobile] phone or on your tablet,” Kaplan said.

“In 10 years, our hope is that there will be a pill that you can take [to combat Alzheimer’s]. You’d simply go in for an annual screening test — and if you get the news that you are on a trajectory for Alzheimer’s, you’d be able to do something about it,” she said.