By Stephanie Stahl

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PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Doctors in England have found a new tool to help diagnose mental health conditions. They’re trying out virtual reality on some of their older patients to pinpoint neurological problems.

At 72 years old, Mark Ferland didn’t know much about virtual reality, but health problems motivated the British grandfather to give it a go.

“Well, I was referred by my doctors for memory problems,” Ferland said.

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Ferland took part in a trial with researchers at the University of Cambridge who tracked patients’ virtual movements to help identify those with early Alzheimer’s.

“What we found is that people with memory impairment that is due to Alzheimer’s disease do very poorly on this test by comparison to people who have memory impairment not due to Alzheimer’s,” lead researcher Dr. Dennis Chan said.

Ferland was one of 100 patients who had to follow a path in a virtual environment and then trace their footsteps back to the starting point without the help of any markers. He found out that while he does have memory problems, he does not have Alzheimer’s.

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“That was an incredible relief and to find out that I was actually normal,” Ferland said.

Doctors hope virtual reality will provide a new pathway to identify Alzheimer’s in patients before symptoms even start.

Here in the U.S., virtual reality is already being used to diagnose and treat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Stephanie Stahl