Erin Johns, a doctoral student at Concordia University, conducted research aimed to detect early signs of Alzheimer’s disease by studying adults with mild cognitive impairment that are at high risk of developing the disease.
“It’s only a small piece of the puzzle,” Johns explained. “It’s contributing something small while hopefully helping something big.”
Adults who are at high risk of developing irreversible Alzheimer’s disease display problems with attention, memory, decision-making and problem solving are more likely to develop the irreversible Alzheimer’s disease. Executive functions are essential in controlling and regulating abilities and behaviour. Johns and her colleagues examined individuals diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, which is often a precursor of Alzheimer’s disease, and tested them on measures of executive functioning.
Alzheimer’s disease is a form of dementia, characterized by deficiencies in behaviour, memory and cognitive abilities that are irreversible. An individual suffering from Alzheimer’s disease often has difficulty controlling what they say, which could be a sign of mild cognitive impairment.
“One of the things that was unique about this study is that we looked at multiple aspects of executive functioning,” explained Johns. “We gave them a lot of different tests.”
All participants failed at least one test, with more than half failing to pass each of the tests examined.
The test that nearly all research subjects failed was a sentence completion test. The test required patients to complete a sentence with a word that is not relevant to the subject of the phrase.
Early detection of Alzheimer’s disease through neuropsychological testing could help individuals and families cope. The study was a collaborative effort that pooled research from seven different clinics province-wide, completed during the summer of 2006 and published May 2012.
The Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society published the results of the study funded by the Alzheimer Society of Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, under the supervision of Dr. Natalie Phillips.
Now, Johns is continuing with a follow-up study that is currently in the data analysis stage, while balancing an internship at the Royal Victoria Hospital. Johns believes that problems with executive functioning in Alzheimer’s disease may not be caused by damage to the brain per se, but a breakdown of communication.
“I wanted to see if, rather than damage to the brain if it’s a breakdown in the co-ordination of different brain areas causing the problem,” explained Johns. “Maybe it’s the different brain areas that are not communicating well anymore.”
Johns is a psychology student completing her post-graduate degree between courses at the Loyola Campus and attending research lab at the Jewish General Hospital. Johns completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Manitoba before she moved to Montreal to continue her education in 2006. The Winnipeg native is married, and is a mother as well.