DEMENTIA check-ups should be as routine as cancer screening and blood pressure tests in order to detect the earliest onset of the disease and slow its progress, a brain expert has said.

Barbara Sahakian, professor of clinical neuropsychology at Cambridge University, said a simple 10-minute test can flag up cognitive deterioration associated with Alzheimer’s disease and enable doctors to prescribe drugs that will slow the decline in concentration and attention.

Prof Sahakian, who will discuss the latest neuroscience advances at the Edinburgh International Science festival, said it was disappointing more was not being done to pick up the disease before serious symptoms emerge.

She said: “Years ago I kept saying to people we need to look at people before the brain damage is done from ‘tangles’ in their brain.

“People were trying to come up with treatments to remove the plaques, but by the time you got a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, there were so many plaques that removing them would just leave ‘spaces.’ The connections were all damaged.

“So I said we’ve got to detect this much earlier. A lot of my work has been around early detection of Alzheimer’s and we have a very good test for that now which is non-invasive.

“It’s a computerised test that runs on an iPad. It takes about 10 minutes. Some of the earliest damage is in the area of the brain called the hippocampus, behind the ear. You get the plaques and tangles there first so the test is based on what this area of the brain helps us to do, which is to remember the location of objects in space – ‘episodic memory’.

“When I explain it to people I say it’s the kind of memory you use when you’ve parked your car in a multi-storey and you come back several hours later and you have to remember where you parked your car. It’s an everyday memory and that’s what the test checks.”

Although there are currently no drugs which can treat episodic memory failures, Prof Sahakian has led research, published in The Lancet, which demonstrated that new cholinesterase inhibitor drugs are effective in delaying deteriorating concentration and attention in Alzheimer’s patients.

Prof Sahakian said the cognitive tests she has helped devise should be as routine as breast screening or blood pressure checks after a certain age to ensure patients can get access to drugs in time.

She said: “We need to start thinking of brain health as every bit as important as our physical health, and the cholinesterase inhibitor drugs can be very helpful for people with Alzheimer’s.

“They stop people going into institutionalised care sooner, so it’s better for the patient as they stay in their own home and it’s good for society as that type of care is very expensive.”

Prof Sahakian said fast-moving developments in functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) technology were also paving the way to a situation where mental health problems such as obsessive compulsive disorder could be picked up by brain scans years ahead of current diagnoses.

She said it could be particularly useful for people with a "genetic loading" in their family history which predisposes them to psychiatric illnesses.

She said: "If we could see that something isn't quite right early on then we could intervene with treatment early and prevent that person ever developing a chronic, debilitating mental health disorder in the future, which would be marvellous."

Prof Sahakian will present her talk, 'Sex, Lies and Brain Scans', on Wednesday April 5.