Remembering the faces and life details of celebrities may serve as a simple way to detect dementia and other types of age-related memory disorders, according to a new study in the journal Neurology.

In the era of TMZ, Gawker, and the 24-hour news cycle, it feels like celebrity culture automatically filters into our lives. Even the most ardent ascetic of mainstream news may eventually learn that Beyonce cut her hair this week or that Kanye West has lost his mind.

A new memory test from Northwestern University works by capitalizing on the amount of celebrity news that has filtered into people’s memories.

"These tests differentiate between recognizing a face and actually naming it, which can help identify the specific type of cognitive impairment a person has," said study author Tamar Gefen, a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

To create this simple test, Gefen and her colleagues recruited 30 people with primary progressive aphasia, an early-onset form of dementia that mainly affects language memory. Although the subjects’ average age was 62 years old, primary progressive aphasia can strike people in their mid- to late-40s.

Each participant was asked to identify 20 famous faces printed in black and white. Given the study group was in their 60s, the photo panel included a range of mainstream dignitaries from the last half century like JFK, Pope John Paul II, Liza Minnelli, Sammy Davis, Jr., Condoleezza Rice, and Oprah. 

The subjects would get one point for mentioning part of the name (picture of Lucille Ball = “I love Lucy”) or two points for saying the whole name (photo of Mohammed Ali = “Cass-iel…Cassius…Clay”).

Unlike prior attempts at a “famous face” exam, these researchers placed an additional emphasis on remembering particular facets of a celebrity’s life. One point — out of a max of two — was given for each life detail mentioned (for instance, if a person responded “Scientist ... E = MC2” after seeing Albert Einstein).

People with early-onset dementia had an average score of 79 percent and 46 percent with listing life details and naming faces, respectively. In contrast, a control group without aphasia scored 97 percent and 93 percent.

Follow-up functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of brain activity revealed distinct patterns between what could be remembered and which parts of the mind were damaged in people with aphasia. People who had trouble with names were more likely to have lost brain tissue in the left temporal lobe, while those struggling with recognition had tissue loss on both sides of the temporal lobe.

"In addition to its practical value in helping us identify people with early dementia, this test also may help us understand how the brain works to remember and retrieve its knowledge of words and objects," Gefen concluded.

 

Source: Gefen T, Wieneke C, Martersteck A, et al. Naming vs knowing faces in primary progressive aphasia: A tale of 2 hemispheres. Neurology. 2013.