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CVl Annual Review

Charting Our Progress is CVL’s annual review, with archives available

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Ability to Recognize Faces Could be a Barometer of Cognitive Decline

DALLAS – April 23, 2015 – New brain imaging research from the Park Aging Mind Lab finds that healthy adults with high levels of amyloid plaque on their brain show less activity in a brain region specialized for recognizing faces called the left fusiform gyrus.

It is common for Alzheimer’s Disease patients to have difficulty learning and remembering faces and this has been thought to be due to memory difficulties. The new finding from the Dallas Lifespan Brain Study suggests that memory problems may not be the whole story. The recent findings suggest that amyloid degrades the ability to even perceive a face, which would naturally add to difficulty in remembering it later. The results suggest that decreased activity in the left fusiform gyrus could be another early predictor for Alzheimer’s Disease.

Researchers at UT Dallas’ Center for Vital Longevity published the paper in the latest issue of the Wiley journal Human Brain Mapping.

The study relied on recent techniques that allow researchers to measure beta-amyloid in the living human brain, through the use of PET scanning and the imaging agent Florbetapir. Beta-amyloid is a sticky protein that deposits on brains of Alzheimer’s patients, and is commonly referred to as the “plaques” associated with Alzheimer’s Disease. In Alzheimer’s Disease, beta amyloid forms clumps on the brain and destroys synapses, resulting in progressively impaired cognitive function as the amyloid increases.

This finding of decreased activity in face perception regions of the brain was revealed when researchers used a statistical technique referred to as “multivariate pattern analysis.” The analysis enabled them to compare broad patterns of neural activity across the brain when participants were viewing faces. The analysis determined how the brain patterns were different for adults with amyloid deposits from those without amyloid. The left fusiform was the only region where adults with and without amyloid showed differences in neural activity.

The work builds on prior studies by senior author Dr. Denise Park, who has shown in earlier work, using functional magnetic resonance imaging, that healthy older adults show a less distinctive pattern of neural activity to faces. The new work from her lab now suggests that brain pathology in the form of amyloid deposition results in further the disruption of specialized neural signals in face regions of the brain.

“Since the current study was focused the basic visual processing of faces, we did not directly measure face-memory. So it’s hard to say that the decreased fusiform activity is directly related to behavioral problems recognizing or remembering faces,” Rieck cautioned. “And we need to remember that these are healthy people with no obvious symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease who are leading full, normal lives. Our work allows us to detect people with very subtle early pathology. We need continued study to see where this leads. We will follow all participants in the Dallas Lifespan Brain Study over the years to see how predictive these findings are of later cognitive decline and progression to Alzheimer’s Disease.”