Diagnosing memory loss before symptoms appear

In December of 2004, as my abdomen was sliced open and my son lifted into the world, my grandmother — lying in a hospital room just a few miles away — took her last breath. Two souls, four generations apart, passing each other; one on the way in, the other on the way out. Hours before, my aunt had told my grandmother that she was about to become a great-grandmother, but she couldn’t process the news. In fact, she no longer knew who I was.

She had lost all memory of me, her first grandchild, who she had spent summers with on Cape Cod collecting shells on the beach. She had lost all memory of my aunt, too, and my mother. She had lost all memory of the family she had created, of the memories they had made, of everything that she was.

I was sad to learn of my grandmother’s death, but the truly crushing news had come almost ten years earlier, when her doctor told us that she was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. What we had hoped was simply age-related memory loss were in fact the first signs of the most common form of dementia. I had witnessed my grandfather succumb to the same disease a few years earlier, so I knew just how cruel the reality of an Alzheimer’s diagnosis can be, for both the person suffering and their friends and family.

In this day and age, so many of us worry constantly about how the aging process will impact our physical image. We obsess over wrinkles, spots and blemishes. Every year American consumers spend more than two billion dollars on anti-aging skincare. But most of us know that as we grow older our greatest asset isn’t wrinkle-free skin; it’s our minds and our memories. Our minds are responsible for our personalities, our strengths, and our foibles.

Our memories are the very essence of who we are. And yet few people think about how to protect these precious gifts as they age.

The reason? Most people are unaware that there are things you can do to prevent memory loss. When we think about treatments for Alzheimer’s, the studies that attract media attention are those for a new pill, even though we’re a long way from a pharmacological solution. But there is a group of scientists who have had incredible results with prevention through lifestyle changes. For example, participants in the MIND diet study, which tested the impact of diet on memory health, saw a 53% reduction in their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Those in the FINGER study, which involved a range of lifestyle changes, have seen a 150% improvement in brain processing speed.

But prevention only works if you can diagnose memory loss before symptoms start. The build-up of amyloid-plaque, thought to be in part responsible for Alzheimer’s, happens long before patients experience signs that there might be a problem with their brain.

That’s why I was so excited when in 2010 I learned about the work of Dr. Stuart Zola and Dr. Beth Buffalo. These two scientists had developed eye-tracking technology that can detect problems in the hippocampus, the part of the brain first affected by Alzheimer’s, long before patients experience symptoms.

After watching my grandparents suffer I knew I had to make this technology available to as many people as possible and raise awareness about the science of prevention.

Just as 23andMe made it possible for individuals to get insight into their DNA and their potential for hereditary disease at a lower price point, we want to give people tools to assess their risk for cognitive decline.

That’s why I founded Neurotrack.

The original assessment developed by Dr. Zola and Dr. Buffalo could only be done in a clinical setting, took thirty minutes, and relied on a camera that cost eighty-five thousand dollars. Neurotrack has worked with scientists, clinicians and engineers to develop the Imprint Check-Up, which you can do in five minutes from the comfort of your own home, as long as you have a computer with an internet connection and a webcam.

As well as making the technology available to as many people as possible, I am committed to furthering the research on the early diagnosis and prevention of diseases that cause memory loss and cognitive decline. We have heavily invested in new scientific studies, partnering with institutions that are leading the field in Alzheimer’s research, including Harvard University, Stanford University and Brown University.

We all know that our memories are our most precious asset but few of us know how to protect them. Science is driving discovery into the early diagnosis and prevention of memory loss; Neurotrack is making that research accessible and bringing the latest assessment tools to as many people as possible.

Imagine if we could diagnose Alzheimer’s ten years before patients experienced memory loss. Imagine if everyone receiving that diagnosis embarked on a tailored prevention program that meant they never ever experienced symptoms. Imagine if an Alzheimer’s diagnosis was no longer a devastating revelation, but a disease you could treat with simple and affordable lifestyle changes.

That’s the world we’re creating.

Elli Kaplan
Elli Kaplan

Founder & CEO of Neurotrack — Elli Kaplan is on a mission to change the conversation around the diagnosis and prevention of cognitive decline.