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English professor Ian Lancashire turns to neuroscience to detect Alzheimer’s disease by analyzing texts

Most people think that an academic career in English means research on old and new literature, but Ian Lancashire, Professor Emeritus of English, proves that a career in English is so much more.

Ian Lancashire outside in front of colourful trees

Ian Lancashire, Professor Emeritus of English. Photo: Wajiha Rasul.

Lancashire joined the University of Toronto in 1968 and began his research in early English drama as a research bibliographer with Records of Early English Drama. Having developed an interest in digital humanities, he founded the Centre for Computing in the Humanities (CCH) in 1985. This led to the CCH release of Text Analysis Computing Tools (TACT), an interactive concordancer (a text-analysis and retrieval system) freely online, and to his research in quantitative stylistics.

While at CCH, Lancashire launched an online Early Modern English dictionaries database with 200,000 word entries, which later paved the way for the release of the extensive Lexicons of Early Modern English database, now with over 960,000 word entries. In 1994 he founded Representative Poetry Online and made it into a web anthology of 4,800 poems in English and French by more than 700 poets spanning 1400 years. More and more numbers.

In 2010, Lancashire published Forgetful Muses: Reading the Author in the Text, pairing his interest in neuroscience and stylistics with an eagerness to understand creativity. In the process he studied Agatha Christie and discovered an effect which he linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

That discovery led to collaboration with Graeme Hirst of Computer Science that showed evidence that famed mystery novelist Agatha Christie suffered from Alzheimer’s-related dementia during the final years of her life. It’s a conclusion some of her biographers have reached, but the pair found proof after digitizing 14 of her novels and used a natural-language analysis system to determine the richness and size of the Christie’s vocabulary, the growth of repeated, and an increase in the use of indefinite words: all indicators of the disease.

Wajiha Rasul of the Department of English spoke to Lancashire about his interest in neuroscience and his collaborative research.

How did you get involved in neuroscience research?

My love of poetry and interest in creativity led me to neuroscience. I educated myself by reading research articles. My full professor status allowed me to conduct long-term research projects. By analyzing Agatha Christie, Iris Murdoch, Ross Macdonald, and others, I saw patterns that literary analysis alone could not well explain.  Neuroscience provided answers, and in Forgetful Muses published a chapter on Agatha Christie.

In 2015, I published “Vocabulary and Dementia in Six Novelists,” which confirmed  absolutely that longitudinal studies of writers can show Alzheimer’s disease cropping up where writing deteriorates. Vocabulary decreases, repeating phrases increase, and authors resort too much to empty words like ‘thing’ — because their memory of richer content words has been lost.

What led to research collaboration on “Longitudinal Detection of dementia through lexical and syntactic changes in writing: A case study of three British novelists”?

Computational linguist Graeme Hirst heard the first talk I gave about Agatha Christie’s results to a small group in the Bahen Centre in 2008 and volunteered to re-analyze my data with a natural-language processing system. I was very nervous about the entire venture. I am an English professor, untrained in neuroscience, and I did not want to publish unscientific results that could be seen as impuning the reputation of a major English author. The patterns I saw shocked me. I could not believe that longitudinal analysis had not been applied to authorship studies. Naturally, I jumped at Graeme’s offer.

I needed colleagues with the qualifications I did not. We also needed help from the medical profession. Regina Jokel, a fine speech-language pathologist and Alzheimer’s clinician at Baycrest, advised us on the medical aspects of the research. Graeme found some funds at Google and applied himself and his graduate student Xuan Lee to the project. Our team of four worked really well.

The Department of English had early on played an important role. They gave me funds to OCR a representative sample of Agatha Christie’s novels. Without the department’s support my data-collection would have stalled.

How effective is longitudinal or change based method in detection of dementia and where do you see its future?

It appears to be reliable when written data over some years is available. Of course, not many people publish novels annually. Yet the famous Nun Study shows that smaller sample sizes, such as diary entries, email, letters, tweets, and even recorded conversations, can be used. A noviciate nun was routinely invited to write a brief autobiography when she entered her order, and 40-50 years later that piece was compared to the nun’s recent writings. Nuns who lacked linguistic density early on tended to develop Alzheimer’s disease in old age. The study was longitudinal and proved effective.

What are the next steps in using language impairment as an early-warning sign of Alzheimer’s disease?

In my 2015 article I analyzed the novels of detective-fiction writer Ross Macdonald, who died with Alzheimer’s disease, and found that his vocabulary declined markedly in his later novels. His case is even stronger than Christie’s. However, Enid Blyton died with a dementia, yet the language of her children’s fiction did not lose words and overly repeat phrases.

We clearly need broad-based studies in how the language of many individuals responds to aging and disease. The highly diverse cultures and languages of Canadians give researchers in the humanities here a good base for study. Longitudinal studies have appeared in Europe, which has a comparable population. Both tend to favour holistic approaches to research topics.

Any advice to English students on interdisciplinary research?

Look for faculty members who are interested in computer and language, take their courses, write a paper and propose developing new tests. My department and the Jackman Humanities Institute have been genuinely encouraging of research in this and other very experimental fields.