Neurologists at St George’s, University of London are conducting a study to investigate how Alzheimer’s Disease affects the written language of those with the condition. The St George’s team, working with colleagues at the universities of Oxford and Southampton, is appealing for people with and without Alzheimer’s disease to come forward with examples of their writing. The scientists hope to identify changes in language use that occur with the condition.

St George’s neurologist Dr Peter Garrard, formerly of the University of Southampton, said: “We will look at the examples of people’s writing and see if it is possible to pick up gradual changes in vocabulary or word usage that may be markers of being on the path to dementia when compared to those who don’t have the condition.”

The team will use computer software to analyse hundreds of writing examples from people in London, Oxford and Southampton, half of whom have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and half who have not. These methods will be able to pick up subtle changes in language use over time that can be associated with the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease, rather than normal age-related changes in vocabulary and word usage.

The researchers hope the work could lead to tests that allow early diagnosis of the condition before any symptoms are apparent. It could also lead to sensitive measures of language use that suggest the likely speed of disease progression and help guide treatment.

Dr Garrard added: “We should be able to time the onset of disease more accurately, and also distinguish those people who might see Alzheimer’s take hold over decades from those who see disease progression in just five to ten years.”

Language dysfunction is an almost universal feature of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. People can experience frustrating problems in finding the right words, see a shrinkage in vocabulary or have a tendency to use generic, less specific words.

Dr Garrard added: ‘We think that people’s ability to express and convey ideas – their creativity using language – can also be sensitive biological measures with implications for neurobiology.’

Dr Garrard’s research group in London and Southampton has previously used this computer-based approach to analyse language use in the novels of Iris Murdoch and the parliamentary speeches of former Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

“Changes in Iris Murdoch’s language use could be identified in her last novel before anyone was aware of any symptoms of her Alzheimer’s disease, and we can now see more subtle changes in the penultimate book, which she was writing at least two years earlier,” said Dr Garrard.

Dr Celeste de Jager of the Oxford Project to Investigate Memory and Ageing (OPTIMA) at the University of Oxford said: “We’re encouraging people to go to their attics, rifle the back of drawers and search through piles of paperwork, to wherever they keep their old diaries, letters and notebooks.

“We’re looking for writing over a span of three decades, but we only need examples totalling around 1,000 words per decade. People are welcome to suggest material from family and friends as well, including those that have passed away. The only condition is that the writing should be in full sentences rather than notes, such as shopping lists.”

Dr de Jager added: “Someone from the study team will come to people’s homes to collect and scan the samples so we can digitise all suitable text for computer analysis.

“With normal ageing, problems with finding words becomes more frequent. But we think we can discriminate these normal patterns from those seen in Alzheimer’s and other dementias.”

“Earlier diagnosis of Alzheimer’s is important for managing the disease and making it easier to match the most appropriate treatments,” said Dr Rob Buckle, board programme manager for the Medical Research Council. “Neurodegeneration is a key priority research area for the MRC in which we are investing heavily as part of our ongoing commitment to improving human health and wellbeing. Studies such as this one provide an important step in establishing non-invasive methods to monitor the disease.”

The study is funded by the Medical Research Council with some support from the Oxford Comprehensive Biomedical Research Centre.

Anyone wishing to get involved with the study should go to www.medsci.ox.ac.uk/optima or telephone OPTIMA on 01865 231270.