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Title: Contrasting Language in Normal Elderly and Prodromal Alzheimer’s Disease: A Pilot Study

Major Contributors:

Lab(s) Name(s):

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Project Coverage:


Project Date(s):

Major Contributors

Janet Sherman (; Barbara Lust (; Suzanne Flynn (

Lab (s) Name (s)

Janet Sherman: Massachusetts General Hospital Psychology Assessment Center; Barbara Lust: Cornell Language Acquisition Lab; Suzanne Flynn: MIT Department of Linguistics and Philosophy


Coverage (countries)

United States




8/2005 to Present


This project is a pilot study, which contrasts the language of clinical patients with Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) and/or Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) with that of normal healthy individuals aged 65-80 and normal healthy individuals aged 20-29. The focus of this project is to determine whether there are subtle changes in language functioning that can inform and possibly identify individuals who may go on to a diagnosis of AD, Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD), or Primary Progressive Aphasia (PPA). This project represents a working collaboration between Cornell University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Massachusetts General Hospital, utilizing and further developing the VCLA cyberinfrastructure.


The goals of this study are to further investigate language changes shown to occur in preclinical Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) and compare them with language changes found in normal aging, healthy individuals. Recent research has suggested that there may be subtle changes in language of individuals with preclinical Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Further investigating this possibility requires comparative study of potential language changes associated with normal aging in healthy elderly populations and specific changes seen in patients with early AD. In this project we propose to test a sample of patients with Mild Cognitive impairment (MCI) and early AD. The pilot project calls for us to develop instruments and initiate pilot testing in order to lead to future external grant proposals.


In terms of language functioning, how is the spoken verbal production of clinical patients with early stage AD or MCI distinct from that of normal healthy elderly? How is the language functioning of both these groups distinct from that of normal healthy individuals at peak memory abilities (age 20-29)? Can subtle changes in language functioning inform and possibly identify individuals who may go on to receive a diagnosis of AD, FTD, or PPA? What is the nature of language functioning impairment in AD/MCI? Are modular deficits evident for AD-type dementia? How does language functioning in normal aging and in clinical AD/MCI interact with demographic factors, such as socioeconomic status, daily activities, multilingualism, medical history, etc.?


It appears that language functioning in patients with probably Alzheimer’s disease has not been studied thoroughly. Most studies concerning language in early Alzheimer’s disease have focused on the early decline in naming and semantic fluency, with this decline interpreted as evidence for impaired semantic memory. However, there remain few studies that have examined language at higher levels, specifically syntactic and discourse levels. Evidence suggests that lexicon and syntactic knowledge are lost independently of each other. It seems that the lexicon is lost first in Alzheimer’s a finding which may function as an early warning sign of the disease.


Addenbrooke’s Cognitive Examination/ Elicited Imitation Paradigm: Relative Clause Study, Coordinate Sentence Study, Adverbial Subordinate Clause Study /Brown-Peterson Task/ Three-Word Generative Task/ Picture Description Task/ Background Questionnaire


We are currently engaged in data collection, data processing, and preliminary analysis


Jordan Whitlock (, Aileen Costigan (, Alexander Immerman, Sarah Mancuso, Angelina Brown, Eric Bastine, Claire Cordella, Jacob Dean, Brian Druyan, Dan Freshman, Jonathan Gursky, Leah Hokanson, Jennifer Kim, David Konigsberg, Hannah Lee, Virginia Li, Katie Lim, Kate Lucey, Kathryna Pitt, Sophia Porrino, Irina Potopova, Sue Song, Odysseus Williams, Lawren Wooten, Steven Xu


Lust, B., Flynn, S., Gair, J., Sherman, J.C., Immerman, A., Mancuso, S., Rak, D., Costigan, A. and Whitlock, J. 2011. Working Memory Dissociates from Linguistic Processing in Mild Cognitive Impairment, Healthy Aging, and Young Controls. Poster presented at Association for Psychological Science 23rd Annual Convention. 26-29 May 2011.

Sherman, J.C., Whitlock, J., Flynn, S., Gair, J., Immerman, A., Rak, D., Mancuso, S., Costigan, A., and Lust, B. 2011. New Research Results Dissociate Linguistic Deficit from Cognitive Decline in MCI. Poster presented at A Map Through The Maze Poster Session. 11 May 2011.

Whitlock, J. 2011. Contrast of Language Competence in Normal Aging and Mild Cognitive Impairment. Paper presented at 2011 Cornell Undergraduate Linguistics Colloquium, 16 April 2011.

Whitlock, J. & Cordella, C. Speech Rate and Pauses in Mild Cognitive Impairment. Paper presented at 2011 Harvard Undergraduate Linguistics Colloquium, 9 April 2011.

Sherman, J.C., Flynn, S., Gair, J., Immerman, A., Whitlock, J., Rak, D., Mancuso, S., Costigan, F., and Lust, B. 2011. Linguistic deficits in MCI relative to healthy elderly and young adults: Pilot results from a multi-center investigation. Poster presented at Massachusetts Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center Boston University Alzheimer’s Disease Center Twenty-Fourth Annual Scientific Poster Symposium, 24 March 2011.

Sherman, Janet Cohen, Flynn, S., Gair, J., Immerman, A., Whitlock, J., Rak, D. and Lust, B. 2011. Language in Aging and Dementia: A Pilot Study. Paper presented to Annual Meeting of the Linguistic Society of America.

Whitlock, J. 2010. Deterioration of Relative Clause Constructions in Elderly English Speakers. Poster presented at Cornell Undergraduate Spring Research Forum, 28 April 2010.