A simple language test can predict who will develop Alzheimer’s, according to new research from IBM that was funded by drug company Pfizer.
The study used a computerised model analysing language patterns to accurately predict 74 per cent of participants later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The study appeared in the journal EClinicalMedicine.
Alzheimer’s is an “irreversible, progressive brain disorder that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks. In most people with Alzheimer’s, symptoms first appear in their mid-60s”. It is the most common cause of dementia among older adults. Dementia is the loss of cognitive functioning – thinking, remembering and reasoning – and behavioural abilities to such an extent that it interferes with a person’s daily life and activities. Language impairments are usually one of the first cognitive signs of the onset of Alzheimer’s.
Memory and cognitive tests have previously been used to detect the condition and recently, researchers have been working on a blood test to make early detection more precise.
In July, a new blood test detected Alzheimer’s as accurately as expensive brain scans or spinal taps, raising the possibility for a new, inexpensive diagnosis option. However, experts warned it could take years to confirm a reliable blood test. “Blood tests are going to be the future, but we’re still not there,” said Dr Oscar Lopez, a professor of neurology and psychiatry and director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.
Ajay Royyuru, IBM’s vice-president of healthcare and life sciences research, said IBM’s language research could offer a non-invasive test that “presents a better window for targeted interventions.”
The IBM study analysed more than 700 written samples from 270 participants in the Framingham Heart Study, which has collected detailed medical histories, physical exams and lab tests from thousands of participants over many decades. Samples from study participants were taken before they had shown signs of memory loss. They were shown a picture of a cookie theft picture and asked to write a description of the image.
The study predicted Alzheimer’s an average of 7.6 years before participants were diagnosed. It was a more accurate predictor than evaluating a genetic susceptibility gene, analysing demographics or psychological tests, the study said.
Mr Royyuru said tracking language patterns could become part of regular health examinations over long periods of time.
“That is not in normal clinical practice today,” he said. “The technology allows us to think about this as something that would be possible.”
Language markers can include repeating questions, stories and statements, and agraphia, the loss of the ability to write, according to the study.
Scientists can track proteins that build up in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. But it takes expensive and invasive brain scans and spinal taps to find them.
And previous studies have been criticised for enrolling patients already showing signs of memory decline, leading to concerns that experimental drugs were used too late.
Blood tests that measure biomarkers could be “very useful because what you want is to have something that will lower the cost of the diagnosis and lower the cost of recruiting people for prevention trials,” Dr Lopez said.
Signs of strife
Alzheimer’s UK says: “One sign that a person’s language is being affected by dementia is that they can’t find the right words. They may use a related word (for example ‘book’ for ‘newspaper’), use substitutes for words (for example ‘thing to sit on’ instead of chair) or may not find any word at all.
“Another sign is that they may continue to have fluent speech, but without any meaning – for example, they may use jumbled up words and grammar. Dementia can also affect the person’s ability to make an appropriate response, either because they may not understand what you have said or meant.”
Do you know the signs of dementia? Have you noticed a friend or relative’s language skills failing as they’ve aged?
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