The Fastball EEG test is a fast, simple test that shows promise as a way to detect Alzheimer’s disease in someone years earlier than the other available tests. Fastball EEG measures brain waves in someone watching images flash across a computer screen for two minutes. Developed by psychologists at the University of Bath, in the UK, the test detects subtle changes when someone remembers an image.
A participant in the Fastball EEG test wears an EEG (electroencephalogram) cap and watches a computer screen that shows a series of everyday objects, followed by a stream of images that flash at a speed of three images per second. The objects shown at the beginning of the test flash every fifth image, and the EEG detects the strength of the subject’s memory response to those images. The memory response to those images is involuntary, meaning it happens automatically, and studies have found that people with Alzheimer’s disease had a much weaker memory response to the images.
Trials are ongoing as researchers advance the Fastball EEG through a process that hopefully will end with availability to anyone concerned about themselves or a loved one’s potential to develop the disease. (The project to determine the test’s effectiveness is scheduled to end in May 2023.)
Some of the reasons Fastball EEG is an exciting way to test for Alzheimer’s disease:
– Simplicity: A short test (just a few minutes) with no instructions except to wear an EEG cap and watch a monitor.
– Inexpensive: No new technology is required for the Fastball EEG test. EEG caps are common in hospitals and doctors’ offices already.
– Portability: No special lab or station is necessary, just the cap and a laptop.
– Completely passive: The person being tested doesn’t need to do anything but look at a screen
Simplicity and passivity are important factors for the EEG test, as other ways of testing to identify dementia require the participant to follow instruction, take action (like speaking, drawing, and/or writing), whereas there is no chance for test anxiety or bias to influence the Fastball test.
The Fastball EEG test picks up very subtle differences in brain waves between people with healthy brains and those with Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers have said that the effectiveness of the test makes it possible to detect Alzheimer’s disease five years earlier than any other test for dementia, even before symptoms have developed.
And because it’s a “passive test” that’s easily administered, anyone who is concerned about potentially developing Alzheimer’s disease (and even those who aren’t) should be able to access the test without trouble.
The Fastball EEG test has been effective at detecting Alzheimer’s disease, and further studies are investigating whether it can detect mild cognitive impairment (MCI).
MCI has symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s disease, including memory loss, though it is less severe. New ways to test are important because some people can live with MCI without knowing it, denying themselves potential methods for improving function. Crucially, MCI also progresses into Alzheimer’s disease in about 10% to 15% of cases.
Whether Fastball EEG tests could be used to detect other types of dementia besides Alzheimer’s, like frontotemporal or Lewy body dementias, is not yet known, but researchers are exploring this possibility as well.
Trials are ongoing as researchers advance the Fastball EEG through a process that hopefully will end with it being made available to anyone concerned about themselves or a loved one’s potential to develop the disease.
The expectation is for more results to be published in 2022, with retests of participants taking place into May 2023. The test might become available for diagnoses after that, in Europe as well as the U.S. However, at this time, the Fastball EEG is a long way from FDA approval.