Executive function tests key to early detection of Alzheimer's

September 10, 2012

By the time older adults are diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, the brain damage is irreparable. For now, modern medicine is able to slow the progression of the disease but is incapable of reversing it. What if there was a way to detect if someone is on the path to Alzheimer's before substantial and non-reversible brain damage sets in?

This was the question Erin K. Johns, a doctoral student in Concordia University's Department of Psychology and member of the Center for Research in Human Development (CRDH), asked when she started her research on with (MCI). These adults show slight impairments in memory, as well as in "executive functions" like attention, planning, and problem solving. While the impairments are mild, adults with MCI have a high risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.

"We wanted to help provide more reliable tools to identify people who are at increased risk for developing Alzheimer's so that they can be targeted for preventive strategies that would stop from progressing," says Johns.

The new study was published in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society and was funded by the Quebec Network for Research on Aging and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. In it, Johns and her colleagues found that people with MCI are impaired in several aspects of executive functioning, the biggest being .

This ability is crucial for self-control: everything from resisting buying a at the checkout aisle to resisting the urge to mention the obvious weight gain in a relative you haven't seen in a while. Adults with MCI also had trouble with tests that measure the ability to plan and organize.

Johns and her colleagues found that all the adults with MCI they tested were impaired in at least one executive function and almost half performed poorly in all the executive function tests. This is in sharp contrast with standard and clinical interviews, which detected impairments in only 15 percent of those with MCI.

"The problem is that patients and their families have difficulty reporting executive functioning problems to their physician, because they may not have a good understanding of what these problems look like in their everyday life." says Johns. "That's why neuropsychological testing is important."

deficits affect a person's everyday life and their ability to plan and organize their activities. Even something as easy as running errands and figuring out whether to go to the drycleaners or to the supermarket can be difficult for with MCI. Detecting these problems early could improve patient care and treatment planning.

"If we miss the deficits, we miss out on an opportunity to intervene with the patient and the family to help them know what to expect and how to cope," says Johns. She is now conducting a follow-up study funded by the Alzheimer Society of Canada and Canadian Institutes of Health Research, along with her supervisor, Natalie Phillips, associate professor in the Department of Psychology and member of CRDH.

Johns hopes her continued research will lead to a better understanding of why these deficits start at such an early stage of Alzheimer's and what other tools could be used for earlier detection of the disease.

Rewarding research: In recognition of the excellence of this research, Johns was awarded the Canadian Institutes of Health Research Institute of Aging Age+ Prize.

Explore further: Retired NFL players at higher risk for mild cognitive impairment

Related Stories

Retired NFL players at higher risk for mild cognitive impairment

July 18, 2011
Retired NFL football players are at higher risk for mild cognitive impairment, which can be a precursor to Alzheimer's disease, a Loyola University Health System study has found.

Amnestic mild cognitive impairment doubles risk of death

July 16, 2012
Researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University and Montefiore Medical Center have found that people with a form of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a risk factor for developing Alzheimer's disease, ...

Researchers connect gene to pre-Alzheimer's

July 19, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Cornell scientists have shown a significant correlation for the first time between a human gene and people's risk for mild cognitive impairment (MCI), often a precursor to Alzheimer's disease and related ...

Recommended for you

Lifestyle changes to stave off Alzheimer's? Hints, no proof

July 20, 2017
There are no proven ways to stave off Alzheimer's, but a new report raises the prospect that avoiding nine key risks starting in childhood just might delay or even prevent about a third of dementia cases around the world.

Blood test identifies key Alzheimer's marker

July 19, 2017
A new study led by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis suggests that measures of amyloid beta in the blood have the potential to help identify people with altered levels of amyloid in their ...

Steering an enzyme's 'scissors' shows potential for stopping Alzheimer's disease

July 19, 2017
The old real estate adage about "location, location, location" might also apply to the biochemical genesis of Alzheimer's disease, according to new research from the University of British Columbia.

Brain scans may change care for some people with memory loss

July 19, 2017
Does it really take an expensive brain scan to diagnose Alzheimer's? Not everybody needs one but new research suggests that for a surprising number of patients whose memory problems are hard to pin down, PET scans may lead ...

Can poor sleep boost odds for Alzheimer's?

July 18, 2017
(HealthDay)— Breathing problems during sleep may signal an increased risk for Alzheimer's disease, a trio of studies suggests.

Hearing is believing: Speech may be a clue to mental decline

July 17, 2017
Your speech may, um, help reveal if you're uh ... developing thinking problems. More pauses, filler words and other verbal changes might be an early sign of mental decline, which can lead to Alzheimer's disease, a study suggests.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.