The dangers of mistaken diagnosis

Psychologists in the Netherlands have documented the case of a 58-year-old woman who was misdiagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. The would-be patient consulted a neurologist at a stressful time in her life, in the knowledge that her mother had had the illness. A brain scan indicated reduced activity at the front of her brain ("hypofrontality"), and the neurologist also estimated her performance on a test of cognitive impairment as poor (though no formal test was conducted). On this basis he diagnosed Alzheimer's*.

The woman was devastated and thereafter her condition deteriorated significantly, to the point that she was permanently confused and, at one point, suicidal. Some months later, after receiving advice from an Alzheimer's helpline, the woman consulted a different neurologist for a second opinion. She completed comprehensive memory tests and undertook a further brain scan. All results were normal. This neurologist surmised that her earlier hypofrontality was associated with depression. He also went to great lengths to explain the good news about her results and the misinterpretation of her earlier scan, but it proved extremely difficult to assuage her concerns.

Read the full story on the Society's Research Digest.

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