Study: How ‘Greebles’ could be the future of early Alzheimer’s detection

LOUISVILLE, Kentucky — Researchers at the University of Louisville used unique graphic characters called “Greebles” to detect signs of Alzheimer’s Disease before symptoms appear.

Dr. Emily Mason, a post-doctoral associate in the Department of Neurological Surgery at the University of Louisville, reported that people who have a genetic disposition to Alzheimer’s Disease had more difficulty recognizing the tiny differences between the pixelated, funny, friendly Greebles in her study.

A sample image of “Greebles” used by study from University of Louisville School of Medicine.

Mason and her team focused on detecting subtle deficiencies in memory and visual recognition, both known to be negatively affected by early stages of Alzheimer’s.

“Right now, by the time we can detect the disease, it would be very difficult to restore function because so much damage has been done to the brain,” says Mason in a university news release. “We want to be able to look at really early, really subtle changes that are going on in the brain. One way we can do that is with cognitive testing that is directed at a very specific area of the brain.”

The researchers tested subjects aged 40 to 60 — who had at least one biological parent diagnosed with the disease — by showing them sets of four slightly different pictures depicting real-world events, human faces, scenes, and, of course, cute Greebles. Subjects were asked to identify the picture that was different from the rest.

When their results were compared to subjects with no genetic history of Alzheimer’s, they lagged behind in the portion of the test that used Greebles. The control group and the at-risk group performed almost the same on normal pictures, but when it came to Greebles, the control group correctly identified the different Greeble 87% of the time, compared to 78% of the time for the at-risk group.

Mason acknowledged the inherent difficulty in identifying the distinct Greeble, but even after some practice, she says, the at-risk group still wasn’t as accurate as the control group.

“The best thing we could do is have people take this test in their 40s and 50s, and track them for the next 10 or 20 years to see who eventually develops the disease and who doesn’t,” she says.

The researchers suggest using the unique system could be a more cost-effective approach in identifying Alzheimer’s symptoms in patients and beginning earlier prevention habits.

“We are not proposing that the identification of novel objects such as Greebles is a definitive marker of the disease, but when paired with some of the novel biomarkers and a solid clinical history, it may improve our diagnostic acumen in early high-risk individuals,” suggests Brandon Ally, Ph.D, an assistant professor of neurological surgery at the school and senior author of the study.

The research article, titled “Family history of Alzheimer’s disease is associated with impaired perceptual discrimination of novel objects,” was published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, Volume 57, Issue 2.

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