Senior man with hearing problems

The way the brain processes speech could serve as a predictor of early dementia before obvious communication problems appear

Dr. Claude Alain, Baycrest's Rotman Research Institute assistant director and senior scientist

Dr. Claude Alain, senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute

Early dementia is typically associated with memory and thinking problems; but older adults should also be vigilant about hearing and communication problems, suggest recent findings in a joint Baycrest-University of Memphis study.

Within older adults who scored below the normal benchmark on a dementia screening test, but have no noticeable communication problems, scientists have discovered a new potential predictor of early dementia through abnormal functionality in regions of the brain that process speech (the brainstem and auditory cortex).

These brain regions are thought to be more resilient to Alzheimer’s. However, this discovery demonstrates changes occur early in the brain’s conversion of speech sound into understandable words. This finding could be the first sign of decline in brain function related to communication that presents itself before individuals become aware of these problems.

Their research technique of measuring electrical brain activity using an electroencephalogram (EEG) in these brain regions also predicted mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a condition that is likely to develop into Alzheimer’s, with 80 per cent accuracy. This test could be developed into a cost-effective and objective diagnostic assessment for older adults.

The study, published online in the Journal of Neuroscience prior to print publication, looked at older adults with no known history of neurological or psychiatric illnesses with similar hearing acuity.

The brain activity within the brainstem of these older adults demonstrated abnormally large speech sound processing within seven to 10 milliseconds of the signal hitting the ear, which could be a sign of greater communication problems in the future.

“This opens a new door in identifying biological markers for dementia since we might consider using the brain’s processing of speech sounds as a new way to detect the disease earlier,” says Dr. Claude Alain, the study’s senior author and senior scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute (RRI) and professor at the University of Toronto’s psychology department. “Losing the ability to communicate is devastating and this finding could lead to the development of targeted treatments or interventions to maintain this capability and slow progression of the disease.”

The study involved 23 older adults between the ages of 52 and 86. Participants were separated into two groups based on their results on a dementia screening test, the Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA). Researchers measured brain activity in the brainstem while participants were watching a video. They measured brain activity in the auditory cortex while participants were identifying vowel sounds. Statistical methods were used to combine both sets of brain activity to predict MCI.

“When we hear a sound, the normal aging brain keeps the sound in check during processing, but those with MCI have lost this inhibition and it was as if the flood gates were open since their neural response to the same sounds were over-exaggerated,” says Dr. Gavin Bidelman, first author on the study, a former RRI post-doctoral fellow and assistant professor at the University of Memphis. “This functional biomarker could help identify people who should be monitored more closely for their risk of developing dementia.”

The next steps involve studying whether those individuals who already have dementia or convert early from MCI to dementia also demonstrate these same changes in brain activity when they hear speech.

Research for this study was conducted with support from the Grammy Foundation, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the FedEx Institute of Technology and the Center for Technologies and Research in Alzheimer’s Care, which supported the staff and equipment needed to conduct the study.  

With additional funds, researchers could explore developing a portable, reliable and easy-to-use alternate diagnostic test for MCI that incorporates the body’s different senses.

“MCI is known to cause changes in different senses, such as vision or touch,” says Dr. Alain. “If we could incorporate these changes into a wireless EEG test, we could combine all this information and develop a better biomarker. One day, doctors could administer a short, 10-minute assessment and instantly provide results.”

“This could offer a new diagnostic assessment that tests a person’s cognitive abilities, such as their ability to communicate, and objectively measure physiological changes in the brain that reflect early signs of dementia,” says Dr. Bidelman.

The research team included Jill Lowther (University of Memphis) and Sunghee Tak (Seoul National University).

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About Baycrest Health Sciences

Headquartered on a 23-acre campus and fully affiliated with the University of Toronto, Baycrest Health Sciences combines a unique holistic healthcare approach for aging adults with one of the world’s top brain research institutes (the Rotman Research Institute). Baycrest is home to the federally and provincially-funded Canadian Centre for Aging and Brain Health Innovation, a solution accelerator focused on driving innovation in the aging and brain health sector, and the developer of a free online memory assessment, Cogniciti, for Canadians 40+ who are concerned about their memory.  As a hospital with exemplary standing, practitioners and researchers at Baycrest work towards revolutionizing the aging experience. Baycrest is a recognized leader in offering unique hands-on opportunities to help train the next generation of healthcare professionals.

About Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute

The Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences is a premier international centre for the study of human brain function. Through generous support from private donors and funding agencies, the institute is helping to illuminate the causes of cognitive decline in seniors, identify promising approaches to treatment, and lifestyle practices that will protect brain health longer in the lifespan.

For media inquiries:
Andy Levy-Ajzenkopf
Baycrest Health Sciences
416-785-2500 ext. 5527
ALevy-Ajzenkopf@baycrest.org