Five million Americans are suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, but not everyone who experiences memory loss should be alarmed; it could be a sign of normal aging. Researchers are using a new cognitive test to help differentiate between the two.

Jim Monti, a University of Illinois postdoctoral research associate said in a press release that the hippocampus is a part of the brain that is important to relational memory — the “ability to bind together various items of an event.”

Monti and psychology professor Neal Cohen explain that relational memory includes being able to connect someone’s name with their face.  The hippocampus helps to combine this information together, so that you can identify someone by name when you see their face. Both pieces of information are stored in different parts of the brain.

In the new cognitive test, participants were a shown a circle divided into three parts with each part having its own unique design. Once they studied the circles, participants had to select the exact match for each circle. This test measures the functioning of the hippocampus, which has been proven to maintain damage in Alzheimer’s disease.

The results of the test, which appear in the journal Neuropsychologia, showed that participants with a mild case of Alzheimer’s had the worst outcome.  They also reported changes in cognition different than those who did not have Alzheimer’s. The impairment will help researchers statistically distinguish between those who did and did not have Alzheimer’s more precisely than older tests used for Alzheimer’s diagnosis.   

 “That was illuminating and will serve to inform future work aimed at understanding and detecting the earliest cognitive manifestations of Alzheimer’s disease,” Monti said.

Researchers say that the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease will increase from five million in 2014 to 16 million by 2050. These troubling statistics are encouraging scientists to find new ways to combat the disease. The new test raises hope in understanding the effect on the brain from Alzheimer’s. Further research still needs to be conducted to improve the test.

“We’d like to eventually study populations with fewer impairments and bring in neuroimaging techniques to better understand the initial changes in brain and cognition that are due to Alzheimer’s disease,” Monti said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, affecting older adults. The National Insitute on Aging identifies the following signs of the disease as follows: getting lost, trouble handing money and paying bills, repeating questions, taking longer than normal to do daily tasks, poor judgment, losing or misplacing things, and mood and personality changes

Source: Monti J, Cohen N, Balota D, Warren D. Very mild Alzheimer׳s disease is characterized by increased sensitivity to mnemonic interference. Neuropsychologia. 2014.