Alzheimer's, Dementia & Mental Health
Simple Visual Test Can Distinguish
Alzheimer’s Disease from Normal Aging
The brain’s hippocampus is important
to relational memory - it binds information together
Participants to study a circle divided into three patterned parts then
pick an exact match from a series of ten other circles. This task
measures the performance of a part of the brain called the hippocampus,
which has been shown to sustain damage in Alzheimer’s disease. Photo by
May 21, 2014 - Researchers have developed a new
cognitive test that can better determine whether memory impairments are
due to very mild Alzheimer’s disease or the normal aging process. The
simple test asks subjects to determine if circles containing certain
designs match each other, which exercises the hippocampus portion of
Memory impairments and other early
symptoms of Alzheimer’s are often difficult to differentiate from the
effects of normal aging, which makes it hard for doctors to recommend
treatment for those affected until the disease has progressed
Previous studies have shown that a
part of the brain called the hippocampus is important to relational
memory – the “ability to bind together various items of an event,” said
a University of Illinois postdoctoral research associate who led the
who is affiliated with the
Being able to connect a person’s
name with his or her face is one example of relational memory. These two
pieces of information are stored in different parts of the brain, but
the hippocampus “binds” them so that the next time you see that person,
you remember his or her name, Monti said.
Previous research has shown that
people with Alzheimer’s disease often have impairments in hippocampal
function. So the team designed a task that tested the relational memory
abilities of the participants, according to their study report in the
Participants were shown a circle
divided into three parts, each having a unique design. Similar to the
process of name-and-face binding, the hippocampus works to bind these
three pieces of the circle together. After the participants studied a
circle, they would pick its exact match from a series of 10 circles,
presented one at a time.
People with very mild Alzheimer’s
disease did worse overall on the task than those in the healthy aging
group, who, in turn, did worse than a group of young adults.
also revealed an additional memory impairment unique to those with very
mild Alzheimer’s disease, indicating the changes in cognition that
result from Alzheimer’s are qualitatively different than healthy aging.
This unique impairment allows researchers to statistically differentiate
between those who did and those who did not have Alzheimer’s more
accurately than some of the classical tests used for Alzheimer’s
diagnosis, Monti said.
“That was illuminating and will
serve to inform future work aimed at understanding and detecting the
earliest cognitive manifestations of Alzheimer’s disease,” Monti said.
Although this new tool could
eventually be used in clinical practice, more studies need to be done to
refine the test, he said.
“We’d like to eventually study
populations with fewer impairments and bring in neuroimaging techniques
to better understand the initial changes in brain and cognition that are
due to Alzheimer’s disease,” Monti said.
The Alzheimer’s Association
estimates that the number of Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease
will increase from 5 million in 2014 to as many as 16 million by 2050.
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