Caring Currents

Can Marilyn Monroe or George Clooney Predict Alzheimer's?

Last updated: Sep 01, 2009

Marilyn Monroe
Image by riiveragalleryartist used under the creative commons attribution license.

Can dementia be predicted by what happens in someone's brain when they see an iconic celebrity like Marilyn Monroe, Bob Hope, Johnny Carson, George Clooney, or Britney Spears?

I realize it's odd to think about Marilyn Monroe and the brain, of all body parts, but bear with me.

Now that we can "see" the inner workings of the brain thanks to better imaging tests, scientists are devising clever ways of watching memory in progress. And one of the simpler ideas, reported in last week's [Neurology] (, compares brain activity when a person is shown different names. Turns out people at high risk of developing Alzheimer's struggle just as much to recognize Marilyn or Britney as they do non-famous names like Irma Jacoby or Thomas Fitzpatrick.

In fact, they struggled six times harder than people at low-risk for Alzheimer's (as determined by family history and [genetic factors] ( All of the subjects, healthy adults ages 65 to 85, were placed in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine and asked to push a button when they recognized names that were flashed in front of them. The low-risk subjects' brains lit up most at the unfamiliar names, meaning they were working hardest to process and identify them. They didn't have to work hard for the celeb names, the way the high-risk people did.

The idea behind this test is to find markers that, along with genetic risk and other known risk factors, can help pinpoint people most vulnerable to Alzheimer's. It's a little hard to see how this kind of predictive information is useful. In theory, the Cleveland Clinic researchers behind it say, it would enable such people to participate in clinical trials of new drugs at the earliest and most beneficial stages.

It's a little amazing to think that how my Dad's brain once processed Marilyn Monroe or Albert Einstein might have foreshadowed his current mid-stage dementia.

I say amazing because at this point he doesn't always know exactly who anybody is. Sometimes I'm his "sister," for example, sometimes I'm his daughter (one of them, anyway"¦he might start to talk about me in the third person, as in, "Did you read Paula's article"¦?").

Makes me want to ask him who Marilyn Monroe is, next time I see him. (Even though that wasn't the test, of course; the test was to reveal what parts of memory function were flashing in healthy subjects.)

But I don't think there was ever a point in his life where Dad had any idea who Brit was.