Using particular speech patterns to spot early signs of dementia

Lead Investigator: Professor Rosemary Varley 
Institution: University College London
Grant type: Project
Duration: 30 months 
Amount:  £146,167
Scientific Title: Formulaic language in dementia: diagnosis, tracking and therapy

 Why did we fund this project?


Comments from members of our Research Network:

'I think this very focussed project is wonderfully embedded in everyday function, and will deliver significant value for money.'

'From experience it is very important for carers to understand how to communicate. The resources available ... are world leading.'

'I would certainly have benefitted from the results of research of this kind while my father was alive. I found the explanation very clear and helpful and the dissemination plans excellent.'

What do we already know?

Language is central to human interaction. Through words and sentences, we share thoughts and feelings with others and participate in work and social events. 
Changes in language are a feature of all forms of dementia. The condition can have profound effects on communication, both in expressing ideas and in understanding others. Difficulties include problems in finding the right words, speaking in simplified sentences and showing gradual increases in grammatical errors. 


Communication breakdown can lead to frustration, feelings of isolation and a decline in overall wellbeing. The impact is felt not only by the person with dementia but also their carers and family members.


What does this project involve?

The researchers have developed a computer programme that can quickly analyse particular patterns in a person's speech. They are particularly interested in understanding how the use commonly used groups of words known as formulas - for example 'I don't know' or 'you know what I mean' - changes for a person with dementia. Early work indicates that people with dementia may be more reliant on using these 'formulaic' patterns. 

Analysing and understanding these 'formulaic' patterns of speech will allow the researchers to spot whether early changes in language patterns could indicate that a person has dementia. A better understanding of how dementia changes a person's use and understanding of language will also allow the researchers to find ways to improve communication between the person with dementia and the people around them.

The team will use their findings to create resources to improve communication with people with dementia. These resources will be freely available for use by family members and healthcare professionals. 


How will this benefit people with dementia?

By understanding early changes in language, the researchers aim to find out whether they can help to diagnose people with dementia at an earlier stage. This will help those affected to get the support, information and any relevant treatments that they need. It may also help to improve diagnosis between different types of dementia, as some forms, such as primary progressive aphasia, have a distinctive effect on language. 

The project also aims to help carers to communicate with people affected by dementia, allowing the needs of the person affected to be better met and reduce feelings such as frustration.