UofL researcher hopes Greebles will help in early Alzheimer’s detection

Which Greeble is different from the other three? (See bottom of story for the answer.)

A study by a University of Louisville researcher shows that people with a predisposition for Alzheimer’s disease have more trouble than others with differentiating complex graphic characters called Greebles.

Emily Mason

Emily Mason, a postdoctoral associate at the university’s Department of Neurological Surgery, said that she hoped her research would help the medical community detect early signs of the disease, which usually begins with mild memory loss but can degenerate to the point that people can no longer respond to the environment.

About five million people were living with Alzheimer’s in 2013, though the figure is expected to roughly triple by 2050, according to the CDC. The cause of the disease is not entirely clear.

Mason asked about 70 volunteers, aged 40 to 60, including some with a family history of the disease, to look at four sets of stimulants — objects, human faces, scenes and Greebles — and to find, in each of about 30 sets of four, the image that was slightly different from the others.

Mason said she chose Greebles because people are familiar with and can more easily recognize differences in the other categories and she wanted at least one part of the test to be especially difficult. Greebles generally are used to study expertise, in that people who spend time looking at the differences among Greebles become familiar with them and can recognize the subtle differences between them more easily. The characters had been used in another medical study that examined the effects of brain injuries.

While the at-risk and the control groups scored about the same on Mason’s tests involving objects, human faces and scenes, people with a predisposition to Alzheimer’s could differentiate among the Greebles 78 percent of the time, 9 percentage points lower than the control group.

Mason and her team initially conducted neuropsychological tests and brain scans on the volunteers to make sure they were cognitively healthy before subjecting them to the “odd-man-out” tests, which were done over a two-year period starting in early 2013. An article on the study was published online last week in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Mason told Insider that the study tried to answer whether medical professionals can detect any differences in behavior 20 to 30 years before an Alzheimer’s diagnosis and before changes in the brain can be detected with imaging tests.

The UofL researcher, who has switched fields of study, said that she hopes that researchers combine the Greeble approach with studies relying on neuroimaging and biomarkers to identify a possible correlation, which could help people detect the disease much earlier than currently possible.

And early detection would enable people to make lifestyle changes and undergo therapies to slow disease onset and progression, said Dr. Robert P. Friedland, professor and Mason and Mary Rudd Endowed Chair in Neurology at UofL.

“This work shows that the effects of Alzheimer’s disease on cognition can be measured decades before the onset of dementia,” Friedland said in a press release. “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.”

The odd Greeble out in the picture above is No. 4. But don’t feel too proud of yourself if you got it right. Mason said the example was one of the easier ones.