Recent studies conducted by University of Toronto and GA Tech have shown that an individual's inability to recognize once-familiar faces and objects may be related to difficulty in perceiving distinct features. In other words, an Alzheimer's patient may not be able to distinguish one face from another...everyone looks the same. Prior to this finding, the cause was attributed solely to impairment in memory recall. There's now growing evidence that a part of the brain once believed to support memory exclusively, the medial temporal lobe, also plays a role in object perception.
In trials, participants with early Alzheimer's disease were shown many pairs of "blob-like" photos where the differences were minor. Patients struggled greatly to identify identical pairings. However, when the pairs of "blob-like" photos were mixed in with photos where the non-matches exhibited more extreme differences (butterfly photo vs. desk photo), the participants were more successful in matching the identical pairings.
Why are these findings significant to Alzheimer's patients and their families?
Scientists are finding that by reducing "visual clutter", Alzheimer's patients can be more successful with everyday tasks. For example, buttons on a telephone tend to be the same size and color. The numbers are the only significant difference which is difficult to distinguish for someone struggling with object perception. A phone designed with varying sized buttons and different colors could be much easier for an early stage Alzheimer patient to navigate. Families should look for ways to make items with minor differences more distinguishable. For example, using different sized and different colored bowls or plates at meal time may make it easier for the Alzheimer's patient to eat independently. Choosing bold, contrasting colored articles of clothing may make it easier for your loved one to put clothing on properly.
Perception tests may become part of the screening process and serve as an early indicator of cognitive impairment.
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