Can writing samples predict who will develop Alzheimer’s Disease years later?
Yes, according to researchers from IBM.
IBM studied 80 men and women in their 70s, none of whom showed signs of Alzheimer’s. They were asked to write about a drawing of a kitchen scene. A boy stood on a wobbly stool, grabbing for cookies in an upper cabinet while a girl his age watched. Nearby a woman, with her back to the children, washed dishes, not seeming to realize that the boy was in danger or that water from the kitchen sink was overflowing.
To describe the scene, some of the subjects wrote simple phrases such as “washing dishes” and “stool tipping ove.” Others wrote longer phrases such as “Mother washing dishes” and “water overflowing in sink.” Still others wrote complete sentences, such as “He is standing on a stool and is almost falling over” and “The water from the faucet is running over on to the floor.”
Seven and a half years later, half of the original subjects showed signs of Alzheimer’s while half did not. Researchers studied the writings of years earlier, using an artificial intelligence (AI) program. The earlier writing of those with Alzheimers showed several characteristics such as
- Repetition in word usage
- Incorrect spelling
- Incorrect capitalization
- Simple grammatical structures and missing words like “the,” “is,” and “are.”
The AI program with 75 percent accuracy identified who would develop Alzheimer’s based on the subjects’ earlier writings. Results were recently published in The Lancet journal EClinicalMedicine.
With such knowledge, researchers hope those who will develop Alzheimer’s can be identified before the onset of the disease. When drugs to combat Alzheimer’s become available, those people can be targeted to prevent the disease or to slow its progress.
Another study of writing and Alzheimer’s Disease considered Agatha Christie’s writing. Researchers from the University of Toronto conducted a study of her writing and concluded she developed Alzheimer’s while she was still writing. They based this conclusion on changes in Christie’s writing style as she aged. They analyzed the variety of words she used and the number of indefinite nouns and phrases she used in each of her books from the time she was 28 to 82.
Researchers found that the vocabulary variety in her novels decreased by 15 to 30 percent while the repetition of phrases and indefinite words (something, anything) increased dramatically. The largest changes showed in a book written in her 80s.
Another study of writing and Alzheimer’s is a study of nuns in Wisconsin. When they were young (average age 22), they wrote their autobiographies. After death, their brains were examined for Alzheimer’s disease. Those women who had low idea density in their autobiographies all developed Alzheimer’s while none of those with high idea density did. Idea density was a better predictor of Alzheimer’s in the nuns than was low grammar complexity.