Research out of the University of Louisville indicates that unique graphic characters called Greebles may prove to be valuable tools in detecting signs of Alzheimer’s disease decades before symptoms become apparent.
In an article recently published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, Emily Mason, a postdoctoral associate in UofL’s Department of Neurological Surgery, reported research showing that cognitively normal people who have a genetic predisposition for Alzheimer’s disease (AD) have more difficulty distinguishing among novel figures called Greebles than individuals without a genetic predisposition.
Working in her previous position at Vanderbilt University, Mason identified test subjects age 40-60 who were considered at-risk for AD due to having at least one biological parent diagnosed with the disease. She also tested a control group of individuals in the same age range whose immediate family history did not include AD.
The subjects completed a series of “odd-man-out” tasks in which they were shown sets of four images depicting real-world objects, human faces, scenes and Greebles in which one image was slightly different than the other three. The subjects were asked to identify the image that was different.
The at-risk and control groups performed at similar levels for the objects, faces and scenes. For the Greebles, however, the at-risk group scored lower in their ability to identify differences in the images. Individuals in the at-risk group correctly identified the distinct Greeble 78 percent of the time, whereas the control group correctly identified the odd Greeble 87 percent of the time.
“Most people have never seen a Greeble and Greebles are highly similar, so they are by far the toughest objects to differentiate,” Mason said. “What we found is that using this task, we were able to find a significant difference between the at-risk group and the control group. Both groups did get better with practice, but the at-risk group lagged behind the control group throughout the process.”
Brandon Ally, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurological surgery at UofL and senior author of the publication, said the tests with Greebles could provide a cost-effective way to identify individuals who may be in the early stages of AD, as well as a tool for following those individuals over time.
“We are not proposing that the identification of novel objects such as Greebles is a definitive marker of the disease, but when paired with some of the novel biomarkers and a solid clinical history, it may improve our diagnostic acumen in early high-risk individuals,” Ally said. “As prevention methods, vaccines or disease-modifying drugs become available, markers like novel object detection may help to identify the high-priority candidates.”
“This work shows that the effects of Alzheimer’s disease on cognition can be measured decades before the onset of dementia,” said Dr. Robert P. Friedland, professor and Mason and Mary Rudd Endowed Chair in Neurology at UofL, who has studied clinical and biological issues in Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders for 35 years. “The fact that the disease takes so long to develop provides us with an opportunity to slow its progression through attention to the many factors that are linked to the disease, such as a sedentary lifestyle, a high-fat diet, obesity, head injury, smoking, and a lack of mental and social engagement.”
* ANSWER: Greeble No. 4 is different.