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Famous Face Test May Spot Early Dementia

Researchers say inability to name icons like Einstein or Elvis might signal primary progressive aphasia

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Alan Mozes

HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, Aug. 12 (HealthDay News) -- What do Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, John F. Kennedy and Oprah Winfrey all have in common? Widespread fame. And now new research suggests that middle-aged Americans who fail to recognize or name them and their like may suffer from a specific type of early onset dementia.

Called primary progressive aphasia, this particular form of dementia tends to initially strike men and women between the ages of 40 and 65. It is principally known for disrupting language skills, making it difficult for patients to understand or find the right words when trying to articulate their thoughts.

With that in mind, investigators believe they have devised a simple, cheap and easy-to-administer screening test that can accurately unearth evidence of the disease based on a patient's inability to verbally identify photos of well-known faces.

"Although several [other] tests assess knowledge of famous faces, many contain stimuli unfamiliar to younger individuals who are seeking neurologic treatment for early dementia," said study author Tamar Gefen, a clinical psychology doctoral candidate at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, in Chicago.

"[Our] test includes images of faces, like Oprah, that are appropriate for a younger generation," Gefen said. "And [ours is] the first study to look at face identification difficulties in a particular group of individuals with primary progressive aphasia, a disease that strikes early and destroys slowly a person's ability to communicate, speak, understand and write."

Gefen and her colleagues discussed their observations in the Aug. 13 issue of the journal Neurology.

To test the potential of photo recognition as a dementia screening tool, the authors focused on 30 patients (60 percent of whom were female) already diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia, as well as 27 healthy patients.

On average, study participants were roughly 62 years old. All were asked to look at a series of 20 black-and-white images downloaded from the Internet. All depicted so-called cultural icons, including Lucille Ball, Princess Diana, Martin Luther King Jr., Elvis Presley and Muhammad Ali. About half of the images were of people who are still alive. About two-thirds were of men, and about a quarter were of black celebrities.

Participants were first asked to try to provide the full name of the person in each image. Partial credit was given for offering just the first or last name. If no part of the name could be recalled, participants were instead asked to offer some form of detailed and relevant description concerning the celebrated person at hand.

At the same time, MRI brain scans were taken of everyone in the study in the hopes of mapping brain irregularities linked to primary progressive aphasia.

The result: Those who were healthy fared much better overall than those with primary progressive aphasia.

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