Oprah and Einstein photos offer clues about early dementia
August 12th, 2013
04:05 PM ET

Oprah and Einstein photos offer clues about early dementia

You are looking at a woman's face; the contours and features seem so familiar.  You see the billowing brown hair, the broad smile, the almond-shaped eyes.  You may even be able to describe things about her:  Famous talk show host, actress in "The Color Purple," philanthropist.

You feel a familiar pang of frustration because the name seems to be in your grasp, but you cannot come up with it.

The person, of course, is Oprah Winfrey.  The inability to conjure the name of such a famous face, for some people, is one of several symptoms of a brain disease called primary progressive aphasia (PPA).

The disease "affects a person's ability to communicate," said Tamar Gefen, a doctoral candidate at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, adding that the disease attacks language centers in the brain.

"Slowly, over time a person loses the ability to name, comprehend, write and communicate," Gefen said.

The loss is not fleeting, but persistent, progressive, and socially crippling.  Patients do not just have difficulty naming Oprah, but can have problems recognizing their own family members or friends.  All of that makes having an accurate test for the disease important.

Whereas faces presented to patients being tested for PPA used to be people famous in the 1950s, now, more contemporary faces, like Winfrey, Princess Diana, Albert Einstein, Mohammed Ali and Barbra Streisand are being used to test for the disease. Rudy Vallee and James Cagney are also among the faces.

"We created a test that was more suitable for individuals who are now at risk for younger onset dementia," said Gefen.

It makes sense, said Gefen, since for a younger person not knowing the name of someone outside his or her cultural frame may not signal dementia.  And PPA is increasingly being diagnosed at a younger age - sometimes as young as 40.

Of course, the research, published Monday in the journal Neurology, was not just about a new dementia test.  Gefen and colleagues wanted to trace the pathway of damage carved in the brain by PPA.

They gave the test to 30 people with PPA, and compared them with a similar group without the disease. As predicted, the group with PPA performed significantly worse on tests of face naming, but even more revealing, brain scans of the patients showed brain damage that could explain the poor scores.

It turns out that difficulty naming faces is related to tissue atrophy on the left side of the brain, whereas difficulty recognizing a face is related to damage on both the right and left sides of the brain.

Those areas are distinct from other types of dementia, like Alzheimer's disease, in which different brain areas are affected.

"People hear dementia and think it's an umbrella term used for Alzheimer's disease and memory impairment," said Gefen.  "There are distinctly different types of dementia and each points to a different underlying anatomical change."

Clarity about the damage and specificity about the type of dementia may cut down on misdiagnosis of PPA, which is often mistaken for stroke or mental illness, according to Gefen.

And it could also later mean a clear, and specific, treatment.

soundoff (15 Responses)
  1. Valerie

    This article is perfect for the current events assignment I have to complete for school! Thank you. I find this article fascinating and it motivates me to search for more information about PPA.

    August 12, 2013 at 22:17 | Report abuse | Reply


      September 2, 2013 at 16:57 | Report abuse |
  2. glutathionepro

    The onset of dementia, PPC and Alzheimer's alike, is a gradual process. Making it hard to know when simple memory impairment crosses the line into a mild cognitive impairment. While it is very important to understand these diseases and have treatments that are effective and safe, we must focus on prevention. Many things can be done to significantly reduce your chances of developing dementia, from supplements to regular activity and mental stimulation. Fascinating article!

    August 13, 2013 at 03:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Anna50

    Dementia and Alzheimer's disease can be reversed but the the big drug makers have a strangle hold on the illness. Natural cures are dismissed and they promote the "No cure" theory which has been proven to be false.

    Researchers in Europe and S. America showed that a special combination of natural ingredients was reversing dementia and Alzheimer's in even late stages. It worked..but when the drug makers found out that all the ingredients were natural and they could not profit off the diet they dropped the researchers.

    just google "MAL ALZHEIMER"

    August 13, 2013 at 09:17 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Portland tony

      If Big Pharma had a chance to get in on an Alzheimer's drug that worked they'd patent it, synthesize the ingredients and make billions. Comments like yours, are just sales pitches for some useless unregulated ground up plant.... Do you also represent the Nigerian Prince who just died and left me millions...if I send in.....?

      August 13, 2013 at 16:48 | Report abuse |
    • I call BS

      Oh, honestly, I am so sick of people like you, Anna. There's no friggin' conspiracy by "Big Pharma' to withhold information about "cures" for diseases.

      Stick to yammering about the grassy knoll in Dallas. Yer nuts/

      August 22, 2013 at 19:35 | Report abuse |
  4. Coco Noel

    I recently wrote a research paper and subsequent blog post about ways to help reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer's Disease and dementia. (it's linked to if you click my name.)

    August 13, 2013 at 11:28 | Report abuse | Reply
    • I call BS

      There's no evidence that Alzheimer's can be prevented. Stop spamming.

      August 22, 2013 at 19:38 | Report abuse |
  5. Portland tony

    Well, I'm one demented soul......Since probably 21 or so, I've met so many people socially and in business situations, somehow my mind learned to ignore those who I'd never see again, hear about, or wouldn't have a significant effect on my life. You know the old "I'm sorry, I have such a hard time with names"......But, once that individual and I had that second or third encounter and the person entered my life's sphere, their face, name, even personality became locked in that secret compartment of my brain....never to leave! Damn it!

    August 13, 2013 at 16:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Thinking things through

    I wouldn't recognize the faces of most of the people mentioned in the article simply because I don't watch TV and see very few movies. I prefer to read.

    August 14, 2013 at 06:51 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.