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Alzheimer's Disease Health Center

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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


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.

Whereas 93 percent of the healthy group was able to successfully put a name to a famous face, the same was true of just 46 percent of the primary progressive aphasia patients.

And although 97 percent of the healthy group was able to recognize or describe the icons on view, the same was true of just 79 percent of the dementia group.

What's more, brain scan analyses revealed that those who had difficulty with name recall were more likely to have experienced brain-tissue loss in the left temporal lobe region of their brains, while those with difficulties in face recognition had suffered brain loss on both sides of the same region.

"We hope," Gefen said, "that this tool can be incorporated into a battery of tests to be used for younger patients who specifically complain of difficulties naming a person's face."

Catherine Roe, an instructor in neurology at the Washington University School of Medicine, in St. Louis, took a cautious view of the findings.

"To help us know how to use this test as a screening tool," Roe said, "more research needs to be done to figure out whether this test distinguishes all people with dementia from people without dementia or whether it distinguishes only people with one particular type of early-onset dementia from people without dementia."

Cheryl Grady, a senior scientist with the Rotman Research Institute at the Baycrest Center in Toronto, seconded the need for follow-up work. But she nonetheless described the work as "intriguing" and praised "the updating of such a test for middle-aged adults."

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