Alzheimer’s disease – the progressive brain disease that slowly takes away memory and thinking skills – is the most common cause of dementia among older people. As many as 4.5 million Americans and 18 million people worldwide suffer from the disease, and for caregivers, the tolls are physical, emotional and financial. In fact, Alzheimer’s is one of the most economically costly diseases to society in developed countries.
Zenda Technologies, a new member company in Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC), hopes to alleviate some of these costs with a new device that detects mild cognitive impairment (MCI), often the earliest stage of Alzheimer’s. Using patent-pending technology developed by the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University over six years of research, patients can be screened for MCI using a brief, inexpensive test with an immersive neuropsychological device.
“Our cognitive impairment test, called DETECT™, has many advantages over current screening methods,” noted Lawrence Catchpole, president and CEO of Zenda. “It’s portable, objective and does not require a trained technician, and it’s short – seven to 10 minutes – compared to the standard 90-minute pen and paper tests used today. We also use ImTech™, our immersive screening device, so instead of needing a soundproofed quiet room, we create the quiet room in any exam.”
The test is designed to be administered before a patient develops Alzheimer’s symptoms, tracking any abnormal decreases in cognitive performance over time. Patients being tested experience a battery of visual and auditory stimuli such as pictures and words that assess cognitive abilities relative to age, gauging reaction time and memory capabilities. If a patient’s performance declines outside the normal range, additional testing and care from a neurologist, neuropsychologist or other specialist would be offered.
“One in 10 people over the age of 65 have Alzheimer’s; that risk increases to 50 percent once you’re over 85. Upon initial diagnosis, 95 percent of Alzheimer’s patients already have moderate to severe disease, so catching it early is critical,” Catchpole said. “It’s a tremendous financial burden, not only on the individuals and their families, but on the health care system. We’re looking at $100 billion today, going to $1 trillion in seven to 10 years.”
To test its products, Zenda initially conducted studies with 40 patients, 20 of whom had been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. They then conducted a larger, 400-patient study which delineated patients with normal, possible, probable and definite impairment. Both studies proved that DETECT was as accurate as or more accurate than the pen-and-paper test that is currently used.
Catchpole notes that Alzheimer’s is the initial but not the only focus of Zenda. Future applications will include neuropsychological testing for mild traumatic brain injury patients related to military assessments, sports injuries and emergency department evaluations, as well as HIV-associated MCI and virtual reality therapies.
Already, Zenda has received more than $3.2 million in grants and other financial resources. The company’s research was funded with a grant from the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation and support from the Georgia Research Alliance through VentureLab, a program that provides comprehensive assistance to faculty members, research staff and graduate students who want to form startup companies to commercialize the technology innovations they have developed.
Becoming an ATDC member company was a natural progression for Zenda, according to Catchpole, who graduated from Georgia Tech with a degree in biology and a minor in electrical engineering. Michelle LaPlaca, who along with Emory School of Medicine assistant professor David Wright created the device, is an associate professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University. Mark Braunstein, professor in the College of Computing and director of health services for the Enterprise Innovation Institute, and John Baumstark, chairman and CEO of ATDC member company Suniva, both serve on Zenda’s management advisory board.
“We think there is a huge value in being part of ATDC, having the combined experience in terms of consultative knowledge and working with the other companies,” Catchpole said. “There is recognition in the investor community of the thorough vetting you have been through as an ATDC member company, and in today’s economy, every check mark you can get is huge.”
About the ATDC: The Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) is a nationally recognized science and technology incubator that helps Georgia entrepreneurs launch and build successful companies. ATDC provides strategic business advice and connects its member companies to the people and resources they need to succeed. More than 110 companies have emerged from the ATDC.
Headquartered at the Georgia Institute of Technology, ATDC has been recognized by both Inc. and BusinessWeek magazines as among the nation’s top nonprofit incubators. ATDC was formed in 1980 to stimulate growth in Georgia’s technology business base, and now has locations in Atlanta and Savannah. ATDC is part of Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute. For more information, please visit (www.atdc.org).
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Writer: Nancy Fullbright