Can’t Identify Famous Faces? Do You have Early Dementia?

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A new study shows that individuals who suffer from primary progressive aphasia (PPA), a dementia that commonly affects adults between the ages of 40 and 65, have trouble identifying the faces of widely famous cultural icons. åÊ

Researchers devised a basic test using photographs of famous people that may be able to identify early dementia in people 40 to 65 years old. “People with this type of dementia consistently forget names of famous people they once knew — it’s more than forgetting a name or two of a famous person,” senior author Emily Rogalski, an assistant research professor at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, told USA Today.

The first group tested included 30 individuals who had previously been diagnosed with PPA, while the second contained 27 healthy individuals to act as a control group. The average age of the participants was 62.

Participants were shown 20 black and white images of famous faces, ranging from leaders such as John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and Pope John Paul II to entertainers like Lucille Ball, Sammy Davis Jr. and Elvis Presley. They were asked to give the researchers the full name of the person in each picture. Partial credit was given for recalling the first or last name. If no part of the name could be recalled, participants were instead asked to offer a detailed description about the famous subject.

The researchers found that the healthy control group performed at a much higher rate than those with PPA. 97 percent of the healthy group was able to recognize or describe the famous figures, compared to 79 percent of the early-onset dementia group. When it came to actually naming those in the photographs, 93 percent of the healthy individuals completed this task correctly, while only 46 percent of the participants with PPA were able to do so.

Each participant was also administered a MRI brain scan to map brain irregularities linked to primary progressive aphasia. The brain scans 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.

“In addition to its practical value in helping us identify people with early dementia, this test also may help us understand how the brain works to remember and retrieve its knowledge of words and objects,” åÊsaid study author Tamar Gefen, MS, of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. “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.”

Catherine Roe, an instructor in neurology at the Washington University School of Medicine, in St. Louis, was cautious when speaking of the findings to HealthDay.

“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.”
Sources: CBS News Interactive and ALFA