Difficulty processing words potential precursor to Alzheimer’s disease

People with mild memory problems, who have a delayed response to processing words, could be at increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, new research suggests. Published in the journal Neuroimage: Clinical, UK researchers assessed the brain activity of 25 people who had been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and compared this with 11 people who were considered cognitively healthy.

To assess brain activity, the researchers used an electroencephalogram (EEG), to detect electrical activity via electrodes attached to the scalp.

How does the test work?

While the EEG was measuring brain activity, participants were shown a number of words on a computer screen, along with an auditory description which either fit the word or didn’t – their brain activity was recorded during the process.

What did they find?

Firstly, a subset of participants in the MCI group went on to develop Alzheimer’s disease a number of years later. This group was referred to in the study as ‘MCI converters’. The researchers found that this group (i.e. the MCI converters) had different brain activity during the EEG test compared to the “MCI non-convertors” and cognitively healthy group.

Understanding any precursory signs and symptoms of neurological problems is important for being able to create strategies and treatment options to potentially delay or even stop progression. Dr Katrien Segaert from the University of Birmingham, who was involved in the study, said the findings were unexpected as language is usually affected by Alzheimer’s disease in much later stages of the onset of the disease.

“It is possible that this breakdown of the brain network associated with language comprehension in MCI patients could be a crucial biomarker used to identify patients likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease,” Dr Segaert said.

The researchers believe people with MCI who have word processing inability could be at increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. They hope in the future this test could be used as a non-invasive means of diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease.

The researchers would like to validate their findings in a larger study.