Re-writing the story of dementia

Mystery novels reveal clues to early detection of Alzheimer's

Date published: 2010-04-06 12:00:00 PM

Your email and blog entries could be used to diagnose Alzheimer‘s, says Ian Lancashire, an English professor at the University of Toronto.

Lancashire digitized and analyzed the text of 14 Agatha Christie novels, covering the entire span of her 50-year career. Specifically, he examined the richness and size of the vocabulary used, the number of repeated phrases, and the use of indefinite words such as "anything" and "something."

He ended up with two results: evidence that the mystery writer suffered from Alzheimer‘s during her final years, and hope for a new diagnostic tool for the deadly disease.

"People in all walks of life can understand, and even become conscious of a change in their personal language," explained Lancashire in an article published on the University of Toronto‘s website. "People have a horde of email or blog entries now that go back some years. The simple vocabulary approach [we used] can be grasped and applied by anyone, privately, non-invasively."

In Christie‘s case, the research team found the richness of her vocabulary fell by one-fifth between her earliest works and the final two. Her use of repeated phrases and indefinite words also increased significantly.

Since then, Lancashire has teamed up with computer scientist Graeme Hirst, graduate student Xuan Le, and Alzheimer‘s specialist Regina Jokel to run statistical tests, extend the analysis to both vocabulary and syntax, and study other writers—some healthy and some who suffered from Alzheimer‘s.

So far, the team‘s research has been recognized by an award from Google and in The New York Times‘ Ninth Annual Year in Ideas.

Lancashire says all the attention demonstrates the value of interdisciplinary research, and the role the humanities have to play in addressing today‘s most important issues.

"Even English professors have a role to play in practical research," he joked.