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Home cure: How humble Queenslander is helping unlock brain disorders

Insights

Distinctive Queenslander houses have found a new home in the scientific analysis of people with brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

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The five-minute test based on images of the classic Queenslander architectural design can predict how likely it is for people with brain disorders, including people who have suffered head injuries, stroke, and even depression, to become lost during everyday outings.

Bond University Assistant Professor of Psychology Oliver Baumann, who developed the Queenslander test, said it may even help diagnose early the early signs of Alzheimer’s.

He said the test means patients can be assessed within minutes to determine if they will have a hard time finding their way around once they get home rather than having to respond to lapses of memory or recognition.

“That can be important for relatives who are planning the level of care required for their loved ones,” Baumann said.

“The patient might have good verbal abilities and seem fine, but suddenly become lost while driving or walking to the supermarket or their GP.”

He said it could replace existing tests for what is called ‘wayfinding performance’ that rely on patients assessing their own abilities.

Men in particular can overestimate their navigation skills while some patients try to mask their impairment, Baumann said.

The new test, published in the Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology, involves showing patients photos of 20 different houses built in the distinctive Queenslander style of architecture that were photographed around Brisbane.

The patient is then instructed to remember the houses before being shown them again, but this time the pictures are mixed with 20 new images of houses.

The patient then had to differentiate between the old and new pictures.

Poorer performance in the test predicted similarly poorer performance in a simulated driving navigation task.

“There is a trick, which is essentially if you are required to memorise more images of the same type, your performance goes down naturally. That first of all allowed us to design a test that was difficult, not impossible,” Baumann said.

“The second benefit was that the method allowed us to avoid people using verbal strategies because then they could mask their wayfinding difficulties or their visual memory deficit, so it was a trick to avoid them using other strategies and get a pure measure of their visual memory ability.

“It’s a proxy of our ability to take in information.”

He said the traditional Queenslander style of home with its wide verandas and angular timber and corrugated iron appearance that still stands firm against the creep of master-planned display villages across the state, was chosen because of its consistent style.

“They are all unique, but share many features and really leant themselves to this test,” he said

“Promoting such beautiful architecture is just a side effect.”

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