Simple test may detect Alzheimer's

September 08, 2005|By NEWSDAY

How many animals can you name in a minute? How about fruits?

British scientists say people on the road to Alzheimer's disease have shorter lists, containing more commonly used words, such as "cat" and "apple." Those with healthy memories use fewer everyday words and more uncommon words such as "badger" and "kiwi."

Andy Ellis and colleagues at the University of Leeds in England say commonly used words are learned between a child's first and fifth year of life. Less commonly used words, such as zebra and giraffe, are learned a few years later during elementary school. Those words are the first to disappear because of Alzheimer's.

Ellis said vocabulary shrinks in the early stages of the disease. The fast test - making lists in a minute - can help identify people in the early stages. His team recruited 96 people with Alzheimer's and 40 age-matched healthy volunteers. Those whose memory systems were intact spewed an average of 33 words a minute, compared with an average of 15 in patients with early Alzheimer's. The range was from 4 to 33 among Alzheimer's patients and 16 to 52 in normal volunteers.

Ellis' findings were reported at a British Festival of Science meeting this week in Ireland. The work was done with colleagues at the University of Hull, north of London, and Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland.

What's novel about the test is that it involves a different part of the brain than is taxed by the usual tests to diagnose Alzheimer's. There are a number of pencil-and-paper tests used in the diagnosis of Alzheimer's.

"A very simple test proved to be remarkably successful at distinguishing people with early Alzheimer's," Ellis said.

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