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A quick way to spot early dementia: Can you recognize a famous face?

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

Researchers may have come up with a way to spot early dementia that can mean future Alzheimer’s disease. The simple Alzheimer’s test involves recognizing a famous face and then putting a name to the well-known person and perhaps a few extra facts.

The finding, published online August 13, 2013, in the journal Neurology could mean a quick way to find out if more testing is needed to screen for dementia.

For their study, researchers at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago tested 30 people with aphasia that affects the speech center of the brain and is an early sign of dementia to identify famous people like John F. Kennedy, Lucille Ball or Princess Diana. They also tested 27 people without dementia as a comparison.

The participants were shown 20 black and white photos of famous people and asked to name them. If they were unable to put a name to the face they were given points for being able to describe the person (e.g. – ‘he was a President’). Each of the subjects gained more points if they could add at least two relevant details about the person. Both groups then underwent MRI scans.

Tamar Gefen, MS explained in a press release, "These tests also differentiate between recognizing a face and actually naming it, which can help identify the specific type of cognitive impairment a person has.”

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People in the study without dementia did significantly better naming famous faces than those with early onset dementia. The study participant’s’ average age was just 62.

Senior study author Emily Rogalski, PhD, assistant research professor at the CNADC said “The famous faces for this study were specifically chosen for their relevance to individuals under age 65, so that the test may be useful for diagnosing dementia in younger individuals."

The simple test for dementia showed the researchers something about the brain too. People who could not put a name to a famous face had loss of brain tissue in the left temporal lobe of the brain that is responsible for learning and verbal memory. Damage to the area makes it difficult to even recognize words.

The researchers also analyzed MRI scans on the study group to find out more about which brain areas are responsible for recognizing and naming famous faces.

People studied who failed to recognize a famous face at all had loss of brain tissue in both the right and left temporal area of the brain.

Gefen said the inability to recognize famous people is a simple way to identify early dementia and also gives insight into how the brain works.

Photo by Alan Light
Wikimedia Commons