New database aims to make Alzheimer’s diagnosis easier and earlier

Do you get nervous when you can’t think of a word? Chances are it’s a momentary lapse, but problems with language are one of the symptoms that can indicate a neurodegenerative disorder like Alzheimer’s disease. Unfortunately, diagnosing these conditions requires scoring below a rather low threshold on a test battery administered by a specialist. This often means, says Mark Liberman, Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Linguistics in the School of Arts & Sciences, that people have already been suffering from the disease for a decade or more when they’re diagnosed. 

outline of a head in profile, the brain matter is filled in with question marks and the face, back of the head, and neck is outlined with roots resembling tree limbs and roots.

Liberman, the director of the Linguistic Data Consortium, is working with researchers at Penn Medicine to build a database that will allow neural health to be tracked across time, so that doctors can make an earlier diagnosis and researchers can evaluate medications and other treatments.

In this first stage, participants are asked to go online and complete two simple tasks: describing a picture and thinking of words in a particular category (like words starting with “S” or names for animals). They can participate more than once, and will get different versions of the tasks each time. Everyone is welcome, not just people with cognitive impairment or elderly people.

“We need thousands of people of all ages and backgrounds and conditions, in order to learn how to track performance across repeated testing,” says Liberman. There are some demographic questions, but the resulting data will be anonymized. If you would like to participate, visit the Speech Biomarkers database.

The project was inspired by Liberman’s work with Murray Grossman, professor of neurology and director of Penn Medicine’s Frontotemporal Degeneration Center (FTD), and Naomi Nevler, a postdoctoral fellow at the FTD. For several years they have been examining and analyzing speech, looking for connections to brain health. “We’re finding that every feature we look at has some relevancy, including things like speech timing and voice pitch, as well as word choice and sentence structure,” says Liberman.

Read more at Omnia