Inability to identify famous faces helps spot early dementia

Researchers from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine say that faces of famous personalities such as Oprah Winfrey, Princess Diana, Queen Elizabeth and Albert Einstein could be used to test whether the person is afflicted or has looming signs of dementia.

The study, reported in the journal Neurology, found that inability to recognize the most popular personalities may well be an indicator of impending dementia.

The researchers conducted the tests to check for a rare form of dementia called primary progressive aphasia (PPA), which usually affects people as young as 40.

The study
For the purpose of the study, researchers enrolled 30 people diagnosed with PPA and 27 without the condition. The average age of participants was 62 years.

Participants were shown images of famous personalities and were given points for each face they could name. In case they could not name the face, they were asked to identify the person through description.

Researchers found that people with PPA were 79 percent successful in recognizing faces and 46 percent in naming them as compared to 97 percent and 93 percent success rate among those not diagnosed with dementia.

Brain scans
Each participant also underwent brain scans. The results of the MRI scans were compared with their test results.

Interestingly, participants who scored low on recognition reported loss of brain tissue on both sides of the temporal lobe of the brain, whereas, participants who scored less in naming had brain damage only in the left temporal lobe, said researcher and doctoral candidate Tamar Gefen.

“Some patients come and say I forgot my daughter’s name when really it’s not a question of memory impairment, it’s an issue of the person’s naming abilities being devastated,” Gefen says. “It’s a very interesting and important distinction.”

While it is normal for anybody to forget a name or a face from time to time, failing to recognize famous personalities suggests deeper issues.

“The disassociation between the naming and recognition is important, showing we use different brain regions to do these two things,” she says.

“We’re hoping that this tool can be incorporated into a battery of tests to be used for younger patients who specifically complain of difficulties naming a person’s face.”

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