Research into how twins’ word association could help identify causes of dementia

Researchers from Swansea University’s College of Arts and Humanities have been awarded £61K by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), for a collaborative project which could help to diagnose medical conditions that cause language loss or malfunction, such as Alzheimer’s disease.

The one year study into word association behaviour is part of a multidisciplinary collaboration between linguists, psychologists, and geneticists from Swansea University, Cardiff University, and Queensland Institute of Medical Research (QIMR) – one of Australia’s largest and most successful medical research institutes. 

Earlier research in this area has revealed word association responses can be influenced by personality, mental health, and age.

As part of this study, the Swansea team will explore word storage and access patterns in identical and non-identical twins, to look for behaviour changes which can be statistically interpreted to predict certain medical conditions.

Colleagues at QIMR have previously carried out twin family studies to investigate genetic contribution to conditions such as migraine, anxiety, and depression, neuroticism, melanoma, and alcoholism.

The collaborative project will allow QIMR geneticists Dr Margie Wright and Dr Naomi Wray to investigate genetic influences on language performance.

Principal Project Investigator, Dr Tess Fitzpatrick  said: “Studying both identical and non-identical twins allows us to tease apart the relative importance of genetic and environmental influences on behavioural characteristics and health and illness.”

Through analysing the language behaviour of participants in the Brisbane Adolescent Twin Study (16 year-olds) and the Older Australian Twins Study (over-65s), who provided spontaneous associations to 100 common words, the research team will link the data to the ageing process as well as to heredity.

Dr Fitzpatrick and Alison Wray, Professor of Language and Communication, Cardiff University, will also analyse essay and interview data collected by QIMR researchers.

“There are indications that individuals can carry a genetic predisposition to many conditions that affect language use, and this project offers us a unique opportunity to analyse the linguistic behaviour of individuals for whom we already have genetically informative data,” added Dr Fitzpatrick.

“Understanding the genetic variation in healthy populations makes an important contribution to what we know about language loss in conditions such as dementia and other medical conditions that impair the ability to produce or understand speech.”

Professor John Spurr, Head of Swansea University’s College of Arts and Humanities, said: “This collaboration between applied linguists and psychologists in South Wales and geneticists in Queensland, Australia, highlights the power of reaching out and working with other leading institutes to produce high quality research that makes a difference.

“It is also a great example of the arts and humanities working with science and social science to provide new perspectives on and approaches to real world problems.”

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