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Clever test gives more clues about Alzheimer's disease

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
More clues to early Alzheimer's disease found with new test

Scientists know mild cognitive impairment or MCI can interfere with daily functioning. In an effort to discover how even mild cognitive impairment that leads to Alzheimer’s disease affects daily living, researchers have developed a ‘clever’ new test that could lead to ways to retrain the brain.


The finding could mean increased independence for anyone on the path to Alzheimer’s and provides new insights into what processes interfere with carrying out daily activities in the presence of even mild memory deficits.

Terry Goldberg, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine and director of neurocognition at the Litwin Zucker Center for Research in Alzheimer's Disease and Memory Disorders at The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, NY and colleagues designed the test.

The goal is to help people who will develop Alzheimer’s disease function better in their daily lives.

Goldberg explains the test involves tapping into the semantic processing system in the brain that has broader implications for how a person functions in their daily life.

Clinicians are trained to focus on short-term memory problems when screening for cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers wanted to find out if there are other memory impairments that haven’t been picked up on before.

To perform the test, the researchers needed a test that did not rely on verbal skills. “If you ask someone what is bigger, a key or an ant, they would be slower in their response than if you asked them what is bigger, a key or a house,” explained Dr. Goldberg in a news release.

The Dartmouth College of Education explains semantic processing as understanding the meaning of words: “…you might depend in part on semantic processing to know that when you read “cat” it means or refers to that warm, furry, purring thing that jumps on your lap and meows.”

For the study, researchers tested 25 patients with MCI, 27 patients with Alzheimer's and 70 people with no memory deficits.

The finding showed major differences between cognitively fit people and those with MCI and Alzheimer’s

“This finding suggested that semantic processing was corrupted,” said Dr. Goldberg. “MCI and AD (Alzheimer's disease) patients are really affected when they are asked to respond to a task with small size differences."

For the test, the scientists used factual, competitive questions. “If you ask someone what is bigger, a key or an ant, they would be slower in their response than if you asked them what is bigger, a key or a house,” explained Dr. Goldberg.

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Then they threw in images designed to require more processing by showing incongruent pictures - a small ant and a big house or a big ant and a small house.

Participants with cognitive impairment or AD became confused and took longer to answer.

Mildly impaired participants functioned somewhere in between the group with no memory deficits and those with Alzheimer’s disease.

After they identified problems with semantic processing, the researchers turned to the UCSD Skills Performance Assessment scale to find out if the subtle declines seen in memory interfere with a person’s daily functioning.

The test reveals a person’s ability to write a complex check or organize a trip to the zoo on a cold day, the researchers explain.

“The semantic system is organized in networks that reflect different types of relatedness or association,” the investigators wrote in their study. “Semantic items and knowledge have been acquired remotely, often over many repetitions, and do not reflect recent learning.”

The finding is important because it gives clues that something besides memory – in this case processing existing knowledge – is slowing down.

In an accompanying editorial David P. Salmon, PhD, of the Department of Neurosciences at the University of California in San Diego points out the test shows people who will later develop Alzheimer’s disease gradually lose their ability to process knowledge and that it happens early. He agrees the finding also shows even mild memory deficits can interfere with ‘usual activities of daily living’.

Goldberg and his team plan to continue their studies to see if semantic problems get worse as the disease progresses. The finding is published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Finding more clues to Alzheimer’s disease with the new test suggests retraining the brain might strengthen semantic processing. It’s not episodic memory loss that interferes with daily functioning, but instead semantic memory.

North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System
December 27, 2012

Updated 10/1/2014



Dr. Maios Hadjivassiliou of the United Kingdom, a recognized world authority on gluten sensitivity, has reported in the journal, The Lancet, that "gluten sensitivity can be primarily and at times, exclusively a neurological disease." That is, people can manifest gluten sensitivity by having issues with brain function without any gastrointestinal problems whatsoever. Dr. Hadjivassiliou indicates that the antibodies that a person has when they are gluten sensitive can be directly and uniquely toxic to the brain. Since his original investigations in 1996, researchers in Israel have noted neurological problems in 51 percent of children with gluten sensitivity and further, describe a link between gluten sensitivity and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). As authors in a recent issue of the journal, Pediatrics, stated in their research, "This study suggests that the variability of neurologic disorders that occur in celiac disease is broader than previously reported and includes softer and more common neurologic disorders including chronic headache, developmental delay, hypotonia and learning disorders or ADHD." (From; DAVID PERLMUTTER, M.D. Board-Certified Neurologist and author of the bestselling, "Gluten Sensitivity and the Impact on the Brain") Allergies and food sensitivities are not only implicated in Alzheimer's but also Parkinson's, Consumption of dairy products, especially milk, increases a man's risk of contracting Parkinson's disease, according to a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology. Researchers used data from a cancer-prevention health survey of the dietary and lifestyle habits of 73,175 women and 57,689 men to compare dairy intake with Parkinson's risk. They found that the men who ate the most dairy were 60 percent more likely to contract Parkinson's disease than the men with the lowest intake. Milk accounted for most of the correlation, rather than more processed products like yogurt or cheese. The data for the study were collected between the years of 1992 and 2001. More and more studies are showing a correlation between diseases and what we eat. I would love to see more articles on those studies rather than focusing on where we loose the memory, episodic memory or semantic. This does not lead to a solution of the problem.
That's good, but only explains one contributor that is just a possibility. It's inflammation and that comes from a lot of sources and is related to our own epigenetic tendencies too. I wish there was a simple solution. - The answer lies in individualized medicine, but we have a long way to go. That's why integrative therapies are so good.
Perhaps further studies can determine what frequency range Alzheimer patients react to best, High, middle, or low. Elderly people seem to have a problem with hearing the lower range of sound frequencies and maybe the higher the better. This might mean the nursing staff might have to be trained in speaking in higher frequencies, or even yodeling! This might mean more than one study?
Murray, Michael T.  (1996).  The Encyclopedia of Nutritional Supplements. Rocklin, CA:  Prima Publishing, p. 186 and 187. mentioned that Alzheimer's disease may also respond to zinc supplementation.  In one study in which elderly patients with Alzheimer's were given 27 milligrams of zinc daily, improvements in memory, understanding, communication, and social contact were incredible. A lack of this important mineral can lead to malabsorption syndromes. And a malabsorption syndrome, such as in allergic responses, can lead to zinc deficiencies. "Zinc deficiencies have been somewhat under the radar because we just don't know that much about mechanisms that control its absorption, role, or even how to test for it in people with any accuracy," said Emily Ho, an associate professor with the Linus Pauling Institute at OSU, and international expert on the role of dietary zinc. When a zinc deficiency is present, the body's ability to repair genetic damage may be decreasing even as the amount of damage is going up.
Yes, see our coverage here: http://www.emaxhealth.com/1506/oysters-prevent-alzheimers-zinc-imbalance-plays-role-memory-loss