Scientists at the Universities of Oxford, Southampton and St George’s, University of London are asking people with and without Alzheimer’s disease to come forward with examples of their writing as part of a study to identify changes in language use that occur with the condition.
‘We’re encouraging people to go to their attics, rifle the back of drawers and search through piles of paperwork, to wherever they keep their old diaries, letters and notebooks,’ says Dr Celeste de Jager of the Oxford Project to Investigate Memory and Ageing (OPTIMA) at the University of Oxford.
‘We’re looking for writing over a span of three decades, but we only need examples totalling around 1000 words per decade. People are welcome to suggest material from family and friends as well, including those that have passed away,’ adds Dr de Jager. ‘The only condition is that the writing should be in full sentences rather than notes, such as shopping lists.’
The team will use computer software to analyse the hundreds of writing examples. These methods will be able to pick up subtle changes in language use over time that can be associated with the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease, rather than normal age-related changes in vocabulary and word usage.
The researchers in Oxford, Southampton and London hope it could lead to tests that allow early diagnosis of the condition before any symptoms are apparent. It could also lead to sensitive measures of language use that suggest the likely speed of disease progression and help guide treatment.
Language dysfunction is an almost universal feature of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. People can experience frustrating problems in finding the right words, see a shrinkage in vocabulary or have a tendency to use generic, less specific words.
‘We will look at the examples of people’s writing and see if it is possible to pick up gradual changes in vocabulary or word usage that may be markers of being on the path to dementia when compared to those who don’t have the condition,’ says Dr Peter Garrard, a neurologist who has recently moved to St George’s, University of London from the University of Southampton. ‘We should be able to time the onset of disease more accurately, and also distinguish those people who might see Alzheimer’s take hold over decades from those who see disease progression in just five to ten years.’
Dr Garrard adds: ‘We think that people’s ability to express and convey ideas, their creativity using language, can also be sensitive biological measures with implications for neurobiology.’
Dr Garrard’s group in London and Southampton have previously used this computer-based approach in to analyse language use in the novels of Iris Murdoch and the parliamentary speeches of former Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
‘Changes in Iris Murdoch’s language use could be identified in her last novel before anyone was aware of any symptoms of her Alzheimer’s disease, and we can now see more subtle changes in the penultimate book, which she was writing at least two years earlier,’ says Dr Garrard.
Teaming up with researchers at Oxford and the long-running OPTIMA project, the scientists will now broaden out this research to involve writing from many more people – both with and without Alzheimer’s disease – over a long time period. They will then have a much better understanding of changes in language use that are distinctive to dementia.
The team hope to include examples of writing from 200 people in areas around Oxford, Southampton and London, half who have received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s and half who haven’t. The study is funded by the Medical Research Council with some support from the Oxford Comprehensive Biomedical Research Centre.
‘Someone from the study team will come to people’s homes to collect and scan the samples so we can digitise all suitable text for computer analysis,’ explains Dr de Jager. ‘With normal ageing, problems with finding words becomes more frequent. But we think we can discriminate these normal patterns from those seen in Alzheimer’s and other dementias.’
‘Earlier diagnosis of Alzheimer’s is important for managing the disease and making it easier to match the most appropriate treatments,’ says Dr Rob Buckle, Board Programme Manager for the Medical Research Council. ‘Neurodegeneration is a key priority research area for the MRC in which we are investing heavily as part of our ongoing commitment to improving human health and wellbeing. Studies such as this one provide an important step in establishing non-invasive methods to monitor the disease.’
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