What’s in a word? Using speech marker to diagnose Alzheimer’s early

By Alice Stanton

graphic of jigsaw puzzle pieces coming out the top of a head

September was World Alzheimer’s Month, an international event run by Alzheimer’s Disease International to spread awareness and challenge the stigmas that surround Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Alzheimer’s is a degenerative neurological condition that is currently affecting more than 944,000 people in the UK and Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60-70% of these cases. Alzheimer’s is progressive and, currently, irreversible with treatment limited to alleviating the symptoms and delaying the progression of the disease. But it isn’t all doom and gloom! Research is currently being done at the University of Sussex on the detection of preclinical dementia or dementia that presents neurologically before any cognitive symptoms are displayed. Although dementia is most commonly detected in people over the age of 65, I will soon be starting work on a PhD project that is motivated by research that has suggested that onset often begins long before detection and diagnosis! A preclinical diagnosis could lead to better and closer monitoring of the disease’s progression which could give patients and their loved ones more time to make choices about the future. As well as giving people more time to make choices, preventative action to slow the progression of dementia can be taken. I hope that my own research can help to make preclinical diagnosis more widely available. Earlier this year, I was accepted for the PhD project: Flower, flora, fauna run by Dr Claire Lancaster, Professor Naji Tabet and Professor Jennifer Rusted. The project asks whether novel metrics of verbal fluency performance can help to detect individuals at risk of future cognitive decline.

I come to the project from a background in linguistics and while previous research has established that there are links between impairment in linguistic processes and dementia, the PhD I will be working on will look specifically at whether patterns of words produced on a verbal fluency task can identify individuals vulnerable to future cognitive decline. A verbal fluency task is, most commonly, a task in which people are asked to produce words that either relate to a category (i.e., Animals – horse, cow, cat, dog) or start with the same letter (i.e., spoon, seat, sofa, sign) for 60 seconds. By measuring not only how many unique words a participant can relay in the given time but also the time taken to switch between broad clusters (i.e., animals to furniture), and internal clusters (i.e., farm animals to pets), as well as the amount of time between words and the length of the phonemes at the end of words, we can hope to find a link between language production on verbal fluency tasks and patients vulnerable to future cognitive decline. The project is funded by a studentship which is 50% funded by the NHS SPFT and I am extremely excited to work in clinics across East Sussex with patients right at the point where they seek medical guidance. Once the data is collected, computational tools will help in the measurement and analysis of the verbal fluency tests including measurements such as counting cluster switches (the switches between clusters of words i.e., from farm animals to pets), cluster sizes (the number of words in each cluster), incorrect responses (words that do not relate to the category given or have the correct first letter), and word frequencies (the number of times a single word is used). Using this interdisciplinary style I hope that my grounding in linguistics, knowledge of natural language processing and passion for finding a method to detect those vulnerable to future cognitive decline will help to aid diagnosis and prognosis in real-world health settings. 

This is my first week at the University and I am currently writing this from the library on campus! I have been to all of my master’s introductions as well as some PhD student introduction events and, although the journey ahead is a long one, I’m so thankful to be going down the road with some brilliant and supportive people. I’m looking forward to seeing what we can all achieve together to help pre-empt a dementia diagnosis and support not only the people affected by Alzheimer’s but also the family and friends of patients to make diagnosis a less scary prospect. 

Alice Stanton is studying the MSc in Cognitive Neuroscience at Sussex and is working alongside Dr Claire Lancaster, Professor Naji Tabet and Professor Jennifer Rusted on the PhD project, Flower, flora, fauna.

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