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Iris Murdoch's last novel reveals first signs of Alzheimer's disease

The last novel written by author Iris Murdoch before she died reveals signs of the first stages of Alzheimer's disease, according to a study published in the latest online issue of Brain.

As part of their on-going research into the effects of Alzheimer's disease on language, scientists at University College London and Medical Research Council's Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit decided to compare three of Dame Iris Murdoch's works, including her final novel written just before she was diagnosed with the disease.

The team found that, while the structure and grammar of Murdoch's writing remained roughly consistent throughout her career, her vocabulary had dwindled and her language simplified in her very last novel. This unique opportunity to study someone's writing style over their lifetime could help researchers improve current diagnostic tests for Alzheimer's.

Under the Net, Murdoch's first published work, The Sea, The Sea which was written during the prime of her creative life and her final novel, Jackson's Dilemma, written just before Murdoch was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, were all converted to digital format and analysed using specialised software. The complete texts were also transformed into word lists showing the frequency of each word by word-type.

The number of word types within a text is a measure of the variety of vocabulary used, and when examined at successive points in a text, reflects the rate at which the author introduces new words. In Murdoch's works, the smallest number of word-types occurred in Jackson's Dilemma and the largest in The Sea, The Sea. The rate of introduction of new word types was also strikingly greater in both earlier books compared with Jackson's Dilemma.

The findings suggest an enrichment in vocabulary between the early and middle stages of Murdoch's writing career, followed by an impoverishment before the composition of her final work. An examination of the character
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Contact: Jenny Gimpel
j.gimpel@ucl.ac.uk
44-207-679-9739
University College London
30-Nov-2004


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