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Recognizing Faces Is a Challenge for Those With Alzheimer’s

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People with Alzheimer’s have a hard time recognizing faces, even in the early stages of the disease, according to a new report. The findings may lead tomore effective strategies for helping people with Alzheimer’s improve daily interactions with others.

It’s not uncommon for those with Alzheimer’s to fail to recognize friends and acquaintances, and even close family members, particularly as the disease progresses. The memory impairment of Alzheimer’s no doubt plays a big role in the problem. But the new findings suggest that parts of the brain responsible for recognizing faces are impaired early in the course of the disease.

For the study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease,researchers at the University of Montreal recruited a group of men and women with mild Alzheimer’s disease. They were matched with a control group who were of similar age and education levels.

The study participants were asked to identify photos of faces and cars, both right-side up and upside down. These tasks require that people use various parts of the brain in different ways.

“With the upright faces, people with Alzheimer’s were much slower and made more mistakes than the healthy individuals,” said Dr. Sven Joubert, a professor in the department of psychology. “This leads us to believe that holistic face recognition in particular becomes impaired, and suggests that Alzheimer’s leads to visual perception problems,specifically with faces.”

What was also surprising about this impairment, the researchers noted, is that it was observed in the early stages of the disease.

The findings may help families better understand their loved one’s difficulties in recognizing them, a painful experience for anyone caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease. It may also lead to new ways to help those with Alzheimer’s better recognize others.

For example, knowing that Alzheimer’s disrupts the ability to perceive familiar faces, family members and caregivers might take extra care in identifying themselves and others. Or, visitors might make sure they speak up, since someone with Alzheimer’s might recognize their voice but not their face.

Several technology companies are investigating ways to help people with early Alzheimer’s identify others, such as children, grandchildren and in-laws,who may be visiting on a weekly or monthly basis. Such a device might, for example, use facial recognition technology to identify visitors, then discreetly vibrate a user’s smartwatch or cellphone and display a name and other identifying information.

The findings could also help in the early diagnosis of the disease. Earlier studies, for example, suggest that having difficulty recognizing “famous” faces may be a way to test for the onset of Alzheimer’s. Further research is needed to understand what goes wrong in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s, a disease that still lacks effective treatments.

By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Marc Flajolet, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.

Source: Marie MaximeLavallee, DelphineGandini, Isabelle Rouleau, et al: “A qualitative impairment in face perception in Alzheimer’s disease: Evidence from a reduced face inversion effect.” Journal of Alzheimer’s DiseaseVol. 51, No. 4, April 12, 2016.

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