Most of us probably associate Alzheimer’s disease with memory loss and possibly confusion and anger. But less common symptoms such as the loss of spatial reasoning—the inability to recognize or find familiar objects that are in plain sight—can also signal the presence of the disease and its variants.
“That’s when you’ve lived in the same house for 30 years but suddenly, you’re confusing which light switch does what,” says Dr. Carolyn Fredericks, M.D., assistant professor of neurology at Yale. “Or you look in the fridge for the orange juice, and even though it’s right in front of you, you can’t pick it out from the crowd of other objects.”
Dr. Fredericks has a special interest in looking at the less-common types of Alzheimer’s, where the prominent signs may be mistaken for dementia or may lie in “completely different realms of thinking,” she says. The danger is that they are masking the onset of the fatal disease, delaying diagnosis and treatment.
She and her colleagues in the Fredericks Lab, a research facility on the Yale University campus, are using advanced neuroimaging technology to understand how variant strains of Alzheimer’s spreads across networks in the brain.
The hope is that their work will result in earlier identification of the illness, more precise monitoring for future drug studies, and identification of targets for direct treatments particularly for patients with atypical variants of Alzheimer’s disease.
Meanwhile, in her clinical practice, Dr. Fredericks sees patients with a variety of cognitive and behavioral issues and concerns.
During an initial visit, Dr. Fredericks asks detailed questions around a patient’s medical history and does cognitive testing to test memory, language, attention, and spatial functions. She also conducts a neurological exam that checks a range of abilities, including a patient’s motor system, reflexes, and coordination.
“I get a deep satisfaction from walking through the treatment process with a family, offering resources and medications that can help the patient feel better, even though it won’t make the illness go away,” she says. “Of course, I love it when I’m able to reverse a process for someone. Sometimes, we will learn that a patient’s thyroid is not working well or that they have an autoimmune condition we can treat. Those kinds of catches are amazing to be a part of.”
The Connecticut resident graduated from Brown with a BA in the Classics and a BS in Neuroscience before going on to the Stanford University School of Medicine. In April, Dr. Fredericks was named a Henry F. McCance Yale Scholar, recognizing her as an outstanding young faculty member, granting her funding for research. She also recieved a $175,000 research grant from the Alzheimer’s Association.
Alzheimer’s and its variants do more harm than rob memory or spatial reasoning. They are also usually fatal. Now, death rates from the progressive disease, for which there is no cure, are on the rise: something Fredericks and others are working to stem.
“Research is the path forward with this disease,” says Ginny Hanbridge, Executive Director of the Connecticut Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. “We are so honored and proud to have so many dedicated scientists in Connecticut, including Dr. Fredericks, working to get us closer to new treatments and hopefully a cure for this disease.”
Alzheimer’s Association is the largest nonprofit funding research in the world, currently providing $235 million to more than 650 active research projects in 39 countries, including $2 million in research in Connecticut.
FIVE EARLY SIGNS
Some memory loss can be normal as we age. But here are some of the red flags when Alzheimer’s might
Disruptive memory loss—when daily life or tasks are too tough to handle because you consistently forget recently learned information.
Challenges in planning or problem solving—you take much longer
to complete a task that you’ve done before or can’t keep track
of your monthly bills.
Difficulty completing familiar tasks—you have trouble driving to a local grocery store and remembering where it is.
Confused about time or place—forgetting where you are or how you got there.
New problems with words in speaking or writing—repeating the same phrase over and over or struggling with vocabulary.
Source: Alzheimer’s Association
To learn more about the Association’s clinical trial matching service, go to alz.org/trialmatch. With questions about Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia, call the Association’s 24/7 Helpline 1-800-272-3900.