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Iris Murdoch's last book reveals early Alzheimer's

December 1, 2004 By Michael Hopkin This article courtesy of Nature News.

Computer analysis of final novel shows signs of language decline.

A vocabulary analysis of the final book by British novelist Iris Murdoch reveals the early stages of the Alzheimer's disease that killed her, neuroscientists have found. The discovery shows that even before she was diagnosed with the disease, her work betrayed the subtle signs of her condition.

The vocabulary of Jackson's Dilemma, published shortly before Murdoch was officially diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 1995, is less rich than that of an earlier work The Sea, The Sea, published at the height of her powers in 1978. A team of British researchers made the discovery by using text-analysis software to compare the variety of words used in three of her novels.

It would have been difficult to interpret if it weren't for her unique style.
Peter Garrard
University College London
The language is richest in The Sea, The Sea, which contains many rare and obscure words, the researchers report in the online version of the journal Brain1. What's more, the rate at which new words are introduced is greater in this work and in Murdoch's 1954 first novel, Under the Net, than in Jackson's Dilemma.

Language link

This tallies well with the early effects of Alzheimer's on language, says Peter Garrard of University College London, who led the research. A diminishing vocabulary, causing a person to feel the desired word frustratingly 'on the tip of one's tongue', often precedes problems with sentence construction. While there is no problem with the grammar in Jackson's Dilemma, Murdoch is reputed to have suffered a rare bout of writer's block during its production.

I had felt all along that there was something different about Iris's last novel, that it was moving but strange in many ways.
John Bayley
Iris's husband
The researchers' project was helped by Murdoch's habit of writing her novels longhand, with few revisions and allowing little editing. This means that the finished novels are very close to her original writings, quirks and all. "It would have been difficult to interpret if it weren't for her unique style," Garrard says.

But he hopes that the discovery could help to hone the existing rough-and-ready methods for diagnosing dementia. Current techniques rely on simple questionnaires, and Alzheimer's itself cannot be confirmed until the brain is examined after death, as Murdoch's was after she died in 1999.

Computer analysis of language could help experts spot the warning signs earlier, Garrard suggests. "This is obviously a special case - not many people do creative writing and get it published," he says. "But a lot of people produce some sort of written output: diaries, speeches and so on."

Struggling mind

The news about Jackson's Dilemma will come as no surprise to Murdoch's friends. "I was pretty sure she did have Alzheimer's [when writing the book]," says British author A. S. Byatt. "Someone said 'This isn't up to her usual standard', but the book is terribly moving as an image of a mind that is struggling."

In her review at the time, Byatt described the book - a romantic romp centred on an English society wedding - as like an "Indian rope trick", with no real characters or story. She says now that, although it saddened her, she wrote the review to deflect other critics who might seize more viciously on its deficiencies. "What amazed me was that she had the will to write it at all," she says. "But it's not really written by the same person."

Murdoch's struggle was just as evident to her husband, the author and critic John Bayley. When first asked about Garrard's plan to analyse the manuscripts, he told the researchers "I had felt all along that there was something different about Iris's last novel, that it was moving but strange in many ways".


  1. Garrard P., Maloney L. M., Hodges J. R. & Patterson K. Brain, published online (2004).


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