Famous Faces Test Can Help Spot Early Dementia
August 13, 2013

How Can Albert Einstein Or Elvis Presley Help Spot Early Dementia?

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Simple tests that measure the ability to recognize and name famous people may help doctors identify early dementia in people 40 to 65 years of age, Northwestern University researchers reported Tuesday in the journal Neurology.

"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," said lead author Tamar Gefen, a doctoral candidate in neuropsychology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Although face recognition tests already exist to help identify dementia, they are outdated and more suitable for an older generation, the researchers said.

However, “the famous faces for this study were specifically chosen for their relevance to individuals under age 65, so that the test may be useful for diagnosing dementia in younger individuals," said senior author Emily Rogalski, assistant research professor at Northwestern's Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center.

An important component of the test is that it distinguishes deficits in remembering the name of a famous person from that of recognizing the same individual, Rogalski explained.

The study also used quantitative software to analyze MRI scans of the brains of participants who completed the test to understand the areas important for naming and recognition of famous faces.

The study participants were, on average, 62 years of age, and included 30 people with primary progressive aphasia, a type of early onset dementia that mainly affects language, and 27 without dementia.

The test involved 20 famous faces printed in black and white, including John F. Kennedy, Lucille Ball, Princess Diana, Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein, and Elvis Presley. Participants were given points for each face they could name. If the subject could not name the face, he or she was asked to identify the famous person through description. Participants gained more points by providing at least two relevant details about the person.

The two groups then underwent MRI brain scans.

The researchers found participants with primary progressive aphasia performed significantly worse on the test, scoring an average of 79 percent in recognition of famous faces and 46 percent in naming the faces. The second group, who were without dementia, scored an average of 97 percent in recognition and 93 percent on naming.

The study also found people who experienced difficulty putting names to the faces were more likely to have a loss of brain tissue in the left temporal lobe of the brain, while those with trouble recognizing the faces had tissue loss on both the left and right temporal lobe.

"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," Gefen said.