I never would have guessed…
EVERY generation has some form of relationship with the internet, but for the older members of society, boosted computer use may have a surprise benefit: it could provide a warning that they may be experiencing the subtle early signs of dementia.
Lisa Vizer and colleagues at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, say the first signs of age-related cognitive problems, or a degenerative condition like Alzheimer’s, might be detectable using software that monitors telltale variations in an individual’s typing patterns. The researchers say that warnings of a possible cognitive dysfunction could improve diagnosis and treatments in time to minimise or delay serious impairment (International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, DOI: 10.1016/j.ijhcs.2009.07.005).
But how to do it? The UMBC team knew that an individual’s typing rhythm is distinctive and reasonably stable over time, but that it can change when we are under temporary stress. They wanted to find out if the mental stress of a cognitive or physical condition would also be detectable.
So they hired 24 volunteers with an average of 12 years’ experience of typing. After having them perform a number of keyboard exercises, such as writing emails on any topic they liked, they undertook either mental mathematics tasks to stress them cognitively, or intense physical exercise to stress them physically.
Subjects then retook the keyboard tests and their performances were compared by looking at factors such as how long each keystroke took, word lengths and vocabulary used. It turned out that cognitive stress led to more changes in keystroke characteristics, and physical stress more linguistic ones. For instance, those cognitively stressed made increased use of the “caps lock” key and less use of the backspace key.
If the monitoring software should detect a typing pattern which indicates deterioration over a long period, says Vizer, it may suggest to the user to consider seeing a doctor.
Lynsey Roberts of the Alzheimer’s Society in London urges caution, however: “While it is really important to find new ways to diagnose dementia early, this group has not yet found a direct link to dementia.”
The researchers are now pressing ahead with a new battery of tests on 80 elderly volunteers.
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