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Macro-Level Cognitive and Linguistic Function in Early Stage Alzheimer’s Disease and Mild Cognitive Impairment

Kokje, Eesha

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Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a global health concern, particularly as there is currently no cure for the disease. Interventions to slow progression of disease, pharmacological or non-pharmacological, need to be targeted early on before any significant neurodegeneration has occurred, as these changes are irreversible, and lost cognitive function cannot be recovered. This makes it imperative to detect pathological cognitive decline as early as possible. Although biomarkers have received a lot of attention in this regard, they have several limitations, particularly outside of research settings, such as cost and availability. Cognitive markers, other than traditional neuropsychological test measures, on the other hand, have received comparatively less attention with regards to early detection; and, particularly cognitive markers that are rooted in real-world, everyday cognition, have been lacking. Due to the disease being incurable, interventions are aimed at maintaining independent living and good quality of life for as long as possible. This necessitates outcomes that can measure meaningful change in cognition and everyday functioning. The goal of the present dissertation was to identify gaps in the current literature on cognitive and linguistic assessments that are embedded in aspects of everyday cognition in AD, and work towards developing paradigms to address the gaps. Due to the emphasis on early detection, the work focused on patients in the very early stage of AD and on its preceding stage of Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI). In light of evidence reporting the inability of AD patients to follow narratives, be it verbal or non-verbal, a systematic review of text comprehension studies was conducted to characterize and evaluate macro-level measures of discourse comprehension in their sensitivity to early stage AD, and their ability to distinguish pathological ageing due to AD or MCI from cognitive ageing. Results showed that, not only AD patients, but also MCI patients were significantly more impaired on macro-level measures of comprehension compared to cognitively healthy older adults. These findings were consistent across all eight studies included in the review, indicating a robust effect, though there were minor differences in the sensitivity of different measures. Next, moving towards non-verbal narratives, a novel picture-based paradigm assessing event cognition, with a focus on event integration and macro-event recognition, was introduced. This study aimed to examine the macro-level processing of events by using a format requiring integration of micro-events, depicted in pictures, into a larger macro-event. AD and MCI patients’ ability to connect the micro-events temporally and causally to identify the depicted macro-event was assessed. As hypothesized, the findings showed that patient groups had significant difficulties in determining temporal order of micro-events, even when provided with a verbal cue, as well as in conceptualizing the macro-event from the presented micro-events, when compared to healthy older adults. Finally, using traditional neuropsychological tests, the cognitive processes involved in performing the macro-event recognition task were determined by examining correlations. Primarily, semantic memory and executive functioning appear to play a role. However, the strength of correlations was fairly moderate, indicating added value of event recognition task in cognitive assessment. Taken together, these findings show the sensitivity of macro-level cognitive and linguistic markers based in everyday cognition in the early stages of AD, and highlight the positive role of such cognitive assessment methods in bringing together objective assessment methods and everyday cognition.

Document type: Dissertation
Supervisor: von Stutterheim, Prof. Dr. Christiane
Place of Publication: Heidelberg
Date of thesis defense: 2 December 2022
Date Deposited: 06 Jun 2023 05:23
Date: 2023
Faculties / Institutes: The Faculty of Behavioural and Cultural Studies > Institute of Psychology
DDC-classification: 150 Psychology
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