Tuesday, April 13, 2021

How Poetry and Mathematics Intersect (Smithsonian Magazine)


“April is both National Poetry Month and Mathematics and Statistics Awareness Month, so a few years ago science writer Stephen Ornes dubbed it Math Poetry Month. If the words ‘math’ and ‘poetry’ don’t intuitively make sense to you as a pair, poet and mathematician JoAnne Growney’s blog Intersections—Poetry with Mathematics is a perfect place to start expanding your math-poetic horizons. The blog includes a broad range of poems with mathematical themes or built using mathematical rules.
“Take ‘Geometry,’ by former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove:
I prove a theorem and the house expands:
the windows jerk free to hover near the ceiling,
the ceiling floats away with a sigh.
“...Growney casts a wide net on her blog, which begins with the words: ‘Mathematical language can heighten the imagery of a poem; mathematical structure can deepen its effect.’ Some poems she features, like ‘Geometry,’ use mathematical themes or images; some are by mathematicians or math students. Growney has also gotten interested in the mathematics of poetic forms and poetic forms that employ mathematics.
“Of course, sonnets and haiku are famous for employing strict counts on lines and syllables. But she is also interested in newer forms, often inspired by the constrained writing exercises of the French Oulipo group, which was founded by mathematicians and poets.
“One such form is the ‘Fib,’ a type of poem based on the Fibonacci sequence in math. The Fibonacci sequence starts 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and so on; each term (after the first two) is the sum of the two terms before it. In a Fib poem, the first line has one syllable, the second one syllable, the third two, the fourth three, and so on. Growney, a retired math professor who sometimes teaches writing workshops, says a limited form like the Fib can help beginning poets who are having trouble starting...
How Poetry and Math Intersect
“Both require economy and precision—and each perspective can enhance the other. Artists and poets have long been inspired by the mathematical patterns found in nature—for instance, the remarkable fact that a sunflower's seeds follow the Fibonacci sequence. But there are myriad other ways that the realms of poetry and mathematics can intersect...
Growney grew up wanting to be a writer. ‘I read Little Women as a girl, and maybe it was partly the name connection, but I thought that I wanted to be a writer like Jo.’ She was also good at math, though, and ended up with a scholarship to study it in college. She stuck with it and earned her Ph.D. in 1970 at the University of Oklahoma. During her career as a math professor, her interest in writing continued. She took poetry classes at a nearby college when she could, discovered the math poetry anthology Against Infinity while doing a sabbatical project about mathematics and the arts, and started to see her feelings about mathematics echoed in poetry.
“Mathematics and poetry, Growney says, are both ‘formats that can convey multiple meanings.’ In mathematics, a single object or idea might take different forms. A quadratic equation, for example, can be understood in terms of its algebraic expression, perhaps y=x2+3x-7, or in terms of its graph, a parabola. Henri Poincaré, a French polymath who laid the foundations of two different fields of mathematics in the early 1900s, described mathematics as ‘the art of giving the same name to different things.’
“Likewise, poets create layers of meaning by utilizing words and images that have multiple interpretations and associations. Both mathematicians and poets strive for economy and precision, selecting exactly the words they need to convey their meaning.
“These features of mathematics and poetry can make them daunting and frustrating for students. ‘If a student sees only one meaning and the intent is to exploit another meaning, it seems manipulative or unfair,’ says Growney. But Growney’s approach to poetry can also inform our attitude towards unfamiliar mathematics. ‘A rule I use for poetry is you first of all read it through once without worrying about understanding,’ she says. ‘If there’s something you like about it, read it again. Give yourself ten readings before you say you don’t understand it.’
“As a professor, she used poetry in her mathematics classes to help students to connect emotionally to mathematics, learn a little bit about the history of what they were doing in class, and think of mathematics as a shared human experience. Now that she is retired, she is still active in the math poetry world, often participating in poetry events at the annual Joint Mathematics Meetings, the largest math conference in the U.S., and the Bridges conference on mathematics and the arts…
“When Growney started her math poetry blog, she thought she had about a year’s worth of material. Since then, far from dancing alone, she has made connections with poets and mathematicians around the world, finding more and more to share. Eight years and almost 900 posts later, she says, ‘I have more than I started with’” (Evelyn Lamb, Smithsonian Magazine).

 Euclid and Barbie by Glen Brown

                        Math class is tough
Sure it doesn’t add up:
countless camping and skiing trips with Ken,
swimming and skating parties without danger,
dancing and shopping engagements
with Midge and Skipper
like an infinite summer vacation.
Nothing here hints at a dull math class
for integral Barbie and her complex playmates!
Even her curvaceous body
proves mathematically impossible.
She’s an isosceles bimbo
with the whole greater than the sum of her parts.
Just bend her at an obtuse angle,
press her into her pink Porsche
and watch her scud across miles of linoleum
or catapult down the stairs.
You’ll know that her appeal
is an equation of Euclidean beauty and speed.
She doesn’t need school.
She was created to multiply
fantasy by freedom in every young girl’s mind.
Why be upset when Barbie says,
Math class is tough?
You can always add for her –
the numberless accessories
to her version of the American dream.

Monday, April 12, 2021

A Tiny Particle’s Wobble Could Upend the Known Laws of Physics (NY Times)


“Evidence is mounting that a tiny subatomic particle seems to be disobeying the known laws of physics, scientists announced on Wednesday [April 7], a finding that would open a vast and tantalizing hole in our understanding of the universe.

“The result, physicists say, suggests that there are forms of matter and energy vital to the nature and evolution of the cosmos that are not yet known to science. The new work, they said, could eventually lead to breakthroughs more dramatic than the heralded discovery in 2012 of the Higgs boson, a particle that imbues other particles with mass.

“‘This is our Mars rover landing moment,’ said Chris Polly, a physicist at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, or Fermilab, in Batavia, Ill., who has been working toward this finding for most of his career.

“The particle célèbre is the muon, which is akin to an electron but far heavier, and is an integral element of the cosmos. Dr. Polly and his colleagues — an international team of 200 physicists from seven countries — found that muons did not behave as predicted when shot through an intense magnetic field at Fermilab.

“‘The aberrant behavior poses a firm challenge to the Standard Model, the suite of equations that enumerates the fundamental particles in the universe (17, at last count) and how they interact. This is strong evidence that the muon is sensitive to something that is not in our best theory,’ said Renee Fatemi, a physicist at the University of Kentucky.

“The results, the first from an experiment called Muon g-2, agreed with similar experiments at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in 2001 that have teased physicists ever since. ‘After 20 years of people wondering about this mystery from Brookhaven, the headline of any news here is that we confirmed the Brookhaven experimental results,’ Dr. Polly said.

“At a virtual seminar and news conference on Wednesday, Dr. Polly pointed to a graph displaying white space where the Fermilab findings deviated from the theoretical prediction. ‘We can say with fairly high confidence, there must be something contributing to this white space,’ he said. What monsters might be lurking there?

“‘Today is an extraordinary day, long awaited not only by us but by the whole international physics community,’ Graziano Venanzoni, a spokesman for the collaboration and a physicist at the Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics, said in a statement issued by Fermilab. The results are also being published in a set of papers submitted to Physical Review LettersPhysical Review A, Physical Review D and Physical Review Accelerators and Beams.

“The measurements have about one chance in 40,000 of being a fluke, the scientists reported, well short of the gold standard needed to claim an official discovery by physics standards. Promising signals disappear all the time in science, but more data are on the way. Wednesday’s results represent only 6 percent of the total data the muon experiment is expected to garner in the coming years.


“For decades, physicists have relied on and have been bound by the Standard Model, which successfully explains the results of high-energy particle experiments in places like CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. But the model leaves many deep questions about the universe unanswered.

“Most physicists believe that a rich trove of new physics waits to be found, if only they could see deeper and further. The additional data from the Fermilab experiment could provide a major boost to scientists eager to build the next generation of expensive particle accelerators.

“It might also lead in time to explanations for the kinds of cosmic mysteries that have long preoccupied our lonely species. What exactly is dark matter, the unseen stuff that astronomers say makes up one-quarter of the universe by mass? Indeed, why is there matter in the universe at all?...” (Dennis Overbye, New York Times).


Sunday, April 11, 2021

"Remembering the nation’s suffering under the pandemic matters" - Heather Cox Richardson


“The 1918 influenza pandemic killed at least 50 million people across the world, including about 675,000 people in the United States. And yet, until recently, it has been elusive in our popular memory. America’s curious amnesia about the 1918 pandemic has come to mind lately as the United States appears to be shifting into a post-pandemic era of job growth and optimism.

“A year ago today, I noted that we were approaching 17,000 deaths from Covid-19. Now our official death count is over 560,000. If anyone had told us a year ago that we would lose more than a half million of our family and friends to this pandemic, that number would have seemed unthinkable. And yet now, as more shots go into arms every day, attention to the extraordinary toll of the past year seems to be slipping.

“Remembering the nation’s suffering under the pandemic matters because the contrast between the disastrous last year and our hope this spring is a snapshot of what is at stake in the fight over control of the nation’s government.

“Ever since President Ronald Reagan declared in his 1981 inaugural address that ‘government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,’ Republicans have argued that the best way to run the country has been to dismantle the federal government and turn the fundamental operations of the country over to private enterprise. They have argued that the government is inefficient and wasteful, while businesses can pivot rapidly and are far more efficient than their government counterparts.

“And then the coronavirus came.

“The president put his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in charge of the nation’s response to the pandemic. Kushner sidelined career officials who knew how to source medical supplies, for example, in favor of young volunteers from investment banks and consulting firms. The administration touted what its leaders called an innovative public-private partnership to respond to the country’s needs, but a report from Representative Katie Porter (D-CA) documented that as late as March 2, the administration was urging American businesses to take advantage of the booming market in personal protective equipment (PPE) to export masks, ventilators, and PPE to other countries. Porter’s office examined export records to show that in February 2020, ‘the value of U.S. mask exports to China was 1094% higher than the 2019 monthly average.’ Meanwhile, American health care providers were wearing garbage bags, and people were sewing their own masks.

“As the contours of the crisis became clearer in late March, business leaders turned to Kushner to provide national direction. He told them: ‘The federal government is not going to lead this response…. It’s up to the states to figure out what they want to do.’ When one leader told him the states were bidding against each other for PPE and driving prices up, he responded: ‘Free markets will solve this…. This is not the role of government.’

“Meanwhile, Trump’s trade adviser Peter Navarro was so worried about the administration’s failure to buy critical medical supplies that he undertook to find them himself, haphazardly committing more than $1 billion of federal money to invest in drugs and supplies. Among other things, he bypassed normal procurement chains and arranged for a loan for Eastman Kodak, a company known for its work in the process of photography, to produce drugs to fight the pandemic. (The company’s stock price jumped from about $2 to $60 a share upon the news of the deal, and the loan was put on hold. Navarro called Eastman Kodak executives ‘stupid’).

“As infections and deaths continued to mount, the administration repeatedly downplayed the emergency. Today we learned that by May, science adviser Paul Alexander and his boss, Michael Caputo, the assistant secretary for public affairs at Health and Human Services, were working to change the language officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention used to warn of the dangers of the disease. ‘I know the President wants us to enumerate the economic cost of not reopening. We need solid estimates to be able to say something like: 50,000 more cancer deaths! 40,000 more heart attacks! 25,000 more suicides!’ Caputo wrote to Alexander on May 16.

“By July, Alexander was calling for the administration to adopt a strategy of herd immunity, simply letting the disease wash over the country. ‘Infants, kids, teens, young people, young adults, middle aged with no conditions etc. have zero to little risk….so we use them to develop herd…we want them infected,’ he wrote to Caputo.

“In keeping with the theory that the federal government had no role to play in combatting the pandemic, as the fall progressed and it appeared there might be a workable vaccine by 2021, the Trump administration made no plan for federal distribution of the vaccine. It figured it would simply deliver the vaccine to the states, which could make their own arrangements to get it into people. The states, though, were badly strapped for money either to advertise or to deliver the shots.

“Infections surged terrifyingly after November until by late January, when Trump left the White House, new infections had reached about 250,000 a day and about 3000 people were dying of Covid-19 daily. With 170 deaths for every 100,000 Americans, the U.S. outstrips every other country in the world for the devastation of this disease. (Brazil, with 159 deaths for every 100,000 people, is second.)

“In contrast to Trump, President Biden has used the pandemic to show what the federal government can do right. The night before he took office, he held a memorial for the Americans who had died in the pandemic. Once in the White House, he dedicated the federal government to ending the scourge. On January 21, he issued a national strategy for responding to the crisis that began by declaring ‘the federal government should be the source of truth for the public to get clear, accessible, and scientifically accurate information about COVID-19.’

“He begged Americans to wear masks, used the federal Defense Production Act to get supplies, got money to states and cities, bought vaccines, and poured money into the infrastructure that would get the vaccines into arms. As of today, the U.S. is averaging 3 million shots a day, and a third of the population has received at least one dose of a vaccine. Twenty percent of us are fully vaccinated, including 60% of those 65 and older.

“Cases of infection are dropping to about 66,000 cases a day-- well below the January surge but still high. The arrival of new, highly contagious variants continues to threaten worrisome spikes, but we are not, so far, facing the sort of crisis that Brazil is, where right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro opposes a lockdown, arguing that the damage a lockdown would do to the economy would be worse than letting the virus run its course. Hospitals in Brazil are overwhelmed, and this week more than 4,000 people died in 24 hours for the first time since the pandemic began. Meanwhile, the vaccine rollout in Brazil has been slow.

“In America, the two very different responses to the pandemic have given us a powerful education in government activism. ‘For the past year, we couldn’t rely on the federal government to act with the urgency and focus and coordination we needed,’ Biden said, ‘And we have seen the tragic cost of that failure….’

“As time moves forward, if we really do get into the clear, it is entirely possible that the 2020 pandemic will fade into the same sort of vagueness that the 1918 pandemic did. But what it has taught us about government is important to remember” (Heather Cox Richardson).












Saturday, April 10, 2021

How worried should you be about coronavirus variants? by Paulo Verardi, Associate Professor of Virology and Vaccinology


Spring has sprung, and there is a sense of relief in the air. After one year of lockdowns and social distancing, more than 171 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in the U.S. and about 19.4% of the population is fully vaccinated. But there is something else in the air: ominous SARS-CoV-2 variants.

I am a virologist and vaccinologist, which means that I spend my days studying viruses and designing and testing vaccine strategies against viral diseases. In the case of SARS-CoV-2, this work has taken on greater urgency. We humans are in a race to become immune against this cagey virus, whose ability to mutate and adapt seems to be a step ahead of our capacity to gain herd immunity. Because of the variants that are emerging, it could be a race to the wire.

Five variants to watch

RNA viruses like SARS-CoV-2 constantly mutate as they make more copies of themselves. Most of these mutations end up being disadvantageous to the virus and therefore disappear through natural selection. Occasionally, though, they offer a benefit to the mutated or so-called genetic-variant virus. An example would be a mutation that improves the ability of the virus to attach more tightly to human cells, thus enhancing viral replication. Another would be a mutation that allows the virus to spread more easily from person to person, thus increasing transmissibility.

None of this is surprising for a virus that is a fresh arrival in the human population and still adapting to humans as hosts. While viruses don’t think, they are governed by the same evolutionary drive that all organisms are – their first order of business is to perpetuate themselves. These mutations have resulted in several new SARS-CoV-2 variants, leading to outbreak clusters, and in some cases, global spread. They are broadly classified as variants of interest, concern or high consequence.

Currently there are five variants of concern circulating in the U.S.: the B.1.1.7, which originated in the U.K.; the B.1.351., of South African origin; the P.1., first seen in Brazil; and the B.1.427 and B.1.429, both originating in California.

Each of these variants has a number of mutations, and some of these are key mutations in critical regions of the viral genome. Because the spike protein is required for the virus to attach to human cells, it carries a number of these key mutations. In addition, antibodies that neutralize the virus typically bind to the spike protein, thus making the spike sequence or protein a key component of COVID-19 vaccines variants that, although not yet classified, have gained international interest. 

They have one key mutation in the spike protein similar to one found in the Brazilian and South African variants, and another already found in the B.1.427 and B.1.429 California variants. As of today, no variant has been classified as of high consequence, although the concern is that this could change as new variants emerge and we learn more about the variants already circulating.

More transmission and worse disease variant causes more severe illness and mortalityAstraZeneca vaccine lacks efficacy in preventing mild to moderate COVID-19 due to the B.1.351 South African variant. Other encouraging news is that T-cell immune responses elicited by natural SARS-CoV-2 infection SARS-CoV-2 infection or mRNA vaccination recognize all three U.K., South Africa, and Brazil variants. This suggests that even with reduced neutralizing antibody activity, T-cell responses stimulated by vaccination or natural infection will provide a degree of protection against such variants.
Stay vigilant, and get vaccinated. 

India and California have recently detected “double mutant.” These variants are worrisome for several reasons. First, the SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern generally spread from person to person at least 20% to 50% more easily. This allows them to infect more people and to spread more quickly and widely, eventually becoming the predominant strain.

For example, the B.1.1.7 U.K. variant that was first detected in the U.S. in December 2020 is now the prevalent circulating strain in the U.S., accounting for an estimated 27.2% of all cases by mid-March. Likewise, the P.1 variant first detected in travelers from Brazil in January is now wreaking havoc in Brazil, where it is causing a collapse of the health care system and led to at least 60,000 deaths in the month of March. Second, SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern can also lead to more severe disease and increased hospitalizations and deaths. In other words, they may have enhanced virulence. 

Another concern is that these new variants can escape the immunity elicited by natural infection or our current vaccination efforts. For example, antibodies from people who recovered after infection or who have received a vaccine may not be able to bind as efficiently to a new variant virus, resulting in reduced neutralization of that variant virus. This could lead to reinfections and lower the effectiveness of current monoclonal antibody treatments and vaccines.

Researchers are intensely investigating whether there will be reduced vaccine efficacy against these variants. While most vaccines seem to remain effective against the U.K. variant, one recent study showed that on the other hand, Pfizer recently announced data from a subset of volunteers in South Africa that supports high efficacy of its mRNA vaccine against the B.1.351.

What does this all mean? While current vaccines may not prevent mild symptomatic COVID-19 caused by these variants, they will likely prevent moderate and severe disease, and in particular hospitalizations and deaths. That is the good news.

However, it is imperative to assume that current SARS-CoV-2 variants will likely continue to evolve and adapt. In a recent survey of 77 epidemiologists from 28 countries, the majority believed that within a year, current vaccines could need to be updated to better handle new variants, and that low vaccine coverage will likely facilitate the emergence of such variants.

What do we need to do? We need to keep doing what we have been doing: using masks, avoiding poorly ventilated areas, and practicing social distancing techniques to slow transmission and avert further waves driven by these new variants. We also need to vaccinate as many people in as many places and as soon as possible to reduce the number of cases and the likelihood for the virus to generate new variants and escape mutants. And for that, it is vital that public health officials, governments and non-governmental organizations address vaccine hesitancy and equity both locally and globally.

Paulo VerardiAssociate Professor of Virology and Vaccinology, University of Connecticut

(The Conversation)

Friday, April 9, 2021

Teen Vogue and Seventeen Magazine Cancel Matt Gaetz’s Subscription


“Florida congressman Matt Gaetz has somehow managed to get himself deeper in the trouble bubble. The Department of Justice is investigating him for child trafficking. Conservative talk show host Tucker Carlson demonstrated he doesn’t want Gaetz to drag him down with him. And there are rumors swirling that he showed inappropriate pictures of the young women he slept with to other representatives on the floor of the House. (File under Facts).

“Adding to this laundry list of self-inflicted woe the magazine Teen Vogue officially announced it canceled Matt Gaetz’s subscription... Andrea Canard is CEO of Teen Vogue and isn’t afraid to speak out about why they canceled Matt Gaetz’s subscription. ‘The man is a monster. At the very least he doesn’t respect women. At the worst, he targets teens and abuses them. And that’s why he earned a lifetime ban.’ Ms. Canard refused to talk any further about other GOP lawmakers who are regular readers of the periodical. 

“The publishers of Seventeen magazine also announced they are canceling Gaetz’s subscription” (File under Satire from Patheos.com).

Thursday, April 8, 2021

"Fire Every Board Member Then Fire DeJoy": Lawmaker Fury Grows Over Postal Service Leadership (Common Dreams)


Democratic lawmakers issued fresh calls late Monday for President Joe Biden to remove all six members of the U.S. Postal Service Board of Governors to enable the ouster of Postmaster General Louis DeJoy after the board declared its "full support" for the Republican megadonor accused of openly sabotaging the agency.

"Every single member of the postal board should be fired. They're openly complicit in DeJoy's sabotage and arson."
—Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-N.J.)
"Instead of holding DeJoy accountable, the USPS Board of Governors confirmed what I always suspected was true: The six current members are all DeJoy loyalists," tweeted Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.).

Duckworth was reacting to the response she received from the postal board regarding her March 25 letter demanding it fire DeJoy for cause, citing his "pathetic 10-year plan to weaken USPS" as evidence that "he is a clear and present threat to the future of the postal service and the well-being of millions of Americans, particularly small business owners, seniors, and veterans, who depend on an effective and reliable USPS to conduct daily business, safely participate in democracy, and receive vital medication."

The letter to Duckworth signed by postal board chairman Ron Bloom described DeJoy as a "transformational leader" who "continues to enjoy the board's full support."

The new 10-year strategy, the letter asserts, will "achieve service excellence adapting the postal service to the evolving needs of the American people, which will make our product offerings more attractive to prospective customers."

Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-N.J.)—who called on Biden in January to purge the postal board for having remained silent during "the devastating arson of the Trump regime"—criticized the board's response to Duckworth. 

"Every single member of the postal board should be fired," Pascrell tweeted Monday. "They're openly complicit in DeJoy's sabotage and arson. Fire every board member then fire DeJoy."

Duckworth, in a separate tweet Monday, said, "I'm re-upping my February request that @POTUS use his legal authority to remove the entire Board for cause."

The lawmakers' calls were echoed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. 

"We'd love to see some spring cleaning at the postal service. Fire Louis DeJoy," the government watchdog tweeted.

Last month, over 50 U.S. House members, including Pascrell, similarly urged Biden to replace the postal board, the only body with the power to directly fire the postmaster general. The lawmakers said in the letter that the current six members of the board should be replaced "with nominees of the caliber of your recent nominees for the three vacant board seats." The letter (pdf) added:

Under the tenure of this BOG, the postal service was blatantly misused by President Trump in an unsuccessful gambit to influence a presidential election, the Postal Service is currently failing to meet its own service standards with historically low rates of on-time delivery, and conflicts of interest appear to be a requirement for service.  Because of their lax oversight, many families struggling through the pandemic still await delivery of their stimulus checks, credit card statements, or event holiday cards. The nonpartisan Postal Service Office of Inspector General found that the BOG allowed their hand-picked postmaster general (PMG) to implement significant operational changes in the milieu of the election and the pandemic without conducting any research into the impacts and ramifications of these changes.

"The board has remained silent in the face of catastrophic and unacceptable failures at a moment when the American people are relying on the postal service the most," the lawmakers wrote. "It is time to remove all governors and start over with a board vested with the expertise and acumen this nation needs in its postal service leadership."

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Writing Samples May Predict Onset of Alzheimer's Years Later (Fisher Center for Alzheimer's Research Foundation)


It’s long been known that people with Alzheimer’s disease have struggles with language that worsen as the disease progresses. Now a new study shows how subtle written language impairments may begin years before an Alzheimer’s diagnosis becomes likely. The study, from researchers at IBM, found that analysis of writing samples from older men and women with normal memory and thinking skills may help predict who develops Alzheimer’s years later.

The study looked at 80 men and women in their 80s. All were part of the large and ongoing Framingham Heart Study, which has followed the physical and cognitive health of a nationally representative group of Americans for decades. Half had developed Alzheimer’s disease by age 85, while the other half remained cognitively normal.

But seven to eight years earlier, when they were in their 70s, none of them had Alzheimer’s disease. All were cognitively normal. And all had completed what’s known as the cookie-theft picture description task, which is often used by researchers to detect impairments in thinking skills.

The task requires people to describe an illustration of a domestic scene, in which a woman dries dishes at an overflowing kitchen sink, while behind her, unawares, a young boy stands on a toppling stool, reaching for a cookie jar on the top shelf while a young girl stands beside him. (You can find a copy of the picture used in the test here: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/The-standardized-Cookie-Theft-picture-Goodglass-and-Kaplan-1983_fig1_315999221 )

A person with normal cognitive skills might describe the scene this way, using language that is rich and descriptive:

“A young boy is reaching for the cookie jar. He is standing on a stool and is almost falling over. His sister is beside him and talking to him. On the other side of the kitchen their mom is wiping dishes. The water from the faucet is running over to the floor.”

Someone with impaired cognition, and at risk for dementia, would be likely to describe the scene differently, omitting verbs, linguistic articles (like “he” or “she”), capital letters, and punctuation. For example, they might write out something along the lines of:

“Boy taking cookies
Mother washing dishes
water overflowing in sink
girl getting cookie from boy
stool falling over”

Someone even more cognitive impaired, perhaps already in the early stages of dementia, might respond to the task this way, with more misspellings, missing letters and clipped descriptions:

“washing dishes
getting cookies out of cookie ja
stoop tipping ove
water running out of sink
Girl reaching for cookie”

Using computer artificial intelligence, the researchers analyzed the participants written responses to the cookie-theft task. They looked for subtle differences in the participants’ responses to the illustrated scene, looking for cues like misspellings, telegraphed language, repetitive word use, inconsistent capitalizations, and omissions of words like “the” and “is.”

The researchers found that those who had the most of these linguistic “mistakes” in their writing samples tended to also the ones who went on to develop Alzheimer’s disease seven to eight years later. The test was 75 percent accurate in predicting who would develop dementia. The findings were published in EClinicalMedicine, a medical journal from The Lancet.

Identifying who is at risk for Alzheimer’s as early as possible, and providing therapies to alter the progression of the disease, has long been a top goal of Alzheimer’s research. Cheap and effective tests that assess language, like the picture task used in this study, could one day be used to identify high-risk populations who might benefit from new therapies. Performing a written test every 10 years or so starting in a person’s 40s might even be better, as it would provide a starting point and some clues about progression as well. 

By ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by Marc Flajolet, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.

Source: Elif Eyigoza, Sachin Mathurb, Mar Santamariab, et al: “Linguistic markers predict onset of Alzheimer’s disease.” EClinical Medicine, October 2020