Literary Reflections of Alzheimer's


Novelist Showed Signs of Alzheimer's in Final Book

Iris Murdoch unwittingly showed in black and white that she was suffering from the disease before she was diagnosed, a new study contends.

Neuroscientists have confirmed what literary critics have long suspected: that Dame Iris Murdoch's final novel revealed signs of the Alzheimer's disease that would eventually take her life.

Jean Iris Murdoch published her first novel, Under the Net, in 1954 and went on to win the Booker Prize for The Sea, The Sea in 1978. Her final novel, Jackson's Dilemma, however, did not receive resounding praise when it was released in 1995. Not long after its release, when she was 76, Murdoch was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. She died in 1999 and donated her brain to science.

A.S. Byatt compared the structure of Jackson's Dilemma to "an Indian rope trick," leaving the work with "no story and no novel." Another reviewer likened it to "the work of a 13-year-old schoolgirl who doesn't get out enough."

With all of her works, Murdoch was notorious for not allowing anyone to edit her writing. This trait provided the current researchers a unique opportunity to analyze the early effects of Alzheimer's in a person who was unaware she had the disease. They published their findings Dec. 1 in the online issue of Brain.

Given postmortem analysis of Murdoch's brain, there seemed little doubt that the early signs of the disease were already interrupting her cognitive abilities when she embarked on her last novel, the researchers found.

Dr. Peter Garrard, a senior lecturer at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience in London and the lead author of the study, said he approached the project with both trepidation and excitement.

"I've always been a keen reader of her work," he said. "What I was hoping to find -- which was what we did find -- was that this change might in some way be translatable into the language of neuroscience, and that was a very exciting prospect."

Garrard and his colleagues used specialized software to analyze these three novels, representing Murdoch's early, middle and later career. In comparing Under the Net, The Sea, The Sea, and Jackson's Dilemma, they found two major differences that were consistent with changes that would be under way in the brain at this early stage of Alzheimer's.

"First, the variety of vocabulary that Iris Murdoch used was much greater in the earlier works than in the later works," said Garrard, who is clinical senior lecturer in neurology at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience. "It appeared that she was working with a more limited, more restricted vocabulary. And not only did she appear to be working with that restriction, but the rate at which she introduced new words was much slower, so it was more repetitive, if you like."

The second main difference was that the words used in the final novel were more ordinary or common words than those used in the earlier novels, Garrard said. There was also a progression evident between the Under the Net and The Sea, The Sea, that later dropped off.

Garrard and his colleagues found no change, however in the syntactic structure of sentences. "All were equally complex and long," Garrard said. "It's interesting because there's a suggestion, not completely established, that syntax is preserved while word meaning and vocabulary is lost in early Alzheimer's."

The use of common words and "simplification of speech in the absence of overt grammatical errors are the known features that occur as Alzheimer's disease progresses," said Mony de Leon, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for Brain Health at New York University School of Medicine.

Garrard pointed out that the study also sheds light on language and how it is organized in the brain. "That's important not only to Alzheimer's but to the understanding of the brain as a whole," he explained.

At some point in the future, however, it may be beneficial to pick up on the very earliest signs of Alzheimer's, such as those found in this study, he said.

John Bayley, Iris Murdoch's husband, said in a statement, "When I was first contacted about this study by the research team, I told them that I had felt all along that there was something different about Iris's last novel, that it was moving but strange in many ways. I felt sure that Peter Garrard would find something unusual in her writing."

When asked if he could identify anything quintessentially Murdoch in her final novel, Garrard replied, "Not much would make me think it was an Iris Murdoch."

"Because the study is so poignant -- because of this individual writer -- it brings to life the concept of what it is to lose this capacity," de Leon said.

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