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Original Investigation
June 2018

Prevalence of Mathematical and Visuospatial Learning Disabilities in Patients With Posterior Cortical Atrophy

Author Affiliations
  • 1Memory and Aging Center, Department of Neurology, UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences, University of California, San Francisco
  • 2Department of Biostatistics, University of California, San Francisco
  • 3Department of Pathology, University of California, San Francisco
JAMA Neurol. 2018;75(6):728-737. doi:10.1001/jamaneurol.2018.0395
Key Points

Question  What is the prevalence and category type of learning disability in patients with posterior cortical atrophy?

Findings  In this case-control study of 279 patients, learning disabilities were observed at higher rates among patients with posterior cortical atrophy and logopenic variant primary progressive aphasia than in the general population and a cohort with amnestic Alzheimer disease. Investigations into the category type of learning disability revealed that the patients with posterior cortical atrophy had a significantly higher amount of nonlanguage mathematical and visuospatial learning disabilities compared with the general population and the control group.

Meaning  Domain-specific learning differences may be associated with domain-specific neurodegenerative diseases, raising the possibility that neurodevelopment is associated with targeting and selective vulnerability to neurodegenerative disease.


Importance  Increased prevalence of language-based learning disabilities (LDs) has been previously reported in patients with primary progressive aphasia (PPA). This study hypothesized that patients with focal neurodegenerative syndromes outside the language network, such as posterior cortical atrophy (PCA), would have a higher rate of nonlanguage LDs, congruent with their mainly visuospatial presentation.

Objective  To investigate the prevalence and type of LD (language and/or mathematical and visuospatial) in a large cohort of patients with PCA compared with patients with logopenic variant PPA (lvPPA) and amnestic Alzheimer disease (AD).

Design, Setting, and Participants  This case-control study reviewed 279 medical records from a university-based clinic and research center for patients with neurodegenerative diseases for LD history, including patients with PCA (n = 95), patients with lvPPA (n = 84), and a matched cohort with amnestic AD (n = 100). No records were excluded. The study compared cognitive and neuroimaging features of patients with PCA with and without LDs. A review of the records of patients presenting from March 1, 1999, to August 31, 2014, revealed 95 PCA cases and 84 lvPPA cases. Then 100 patients with amnestic AD from this same period were chosen for comparison, matching against the groups for age, sex, and disease severity. Data analysis was performed from September 8, 2013, to November 6, 2017.

Main Outcomes and Measures  Prevalence of total LD history and prevalence of language and mathematical or visuospatial LD history across all cohorts.

Results  A total of 179 atypical AD cases (95 with PCA and 84 with lvPPA) and 100 disease control cases (amnestic AD) were included in the study. The groups were not statistically different for mean (SD) age at first visit (PCA, 61.9 [7.0] years; lvPPA, 65.1 [8.7] years; amnestic AD, 64.0 [12.6] years; P = .08), mean (SD) age at first symptom (PCA, 57.5 [7.0] years; lvPPA, 61.1 [9.0] years; amnestic AD, 59.6 [13.7] years; P = .06), or sex (PCA, 66.3% female; lvPPA, 56.0% female; amnestic AD, 57.0% female; P = .30) but differed on non–right-hand preference (PCA, 18.3%; lvPPA, 20.2%; amnestic AD, 7.7%; P = .04), race/ethnicity (PCA, 88.3% white; lvPPA, 99.0% white; amnestic AD, 80.0% white; P < .001), and mean (SD) educational level (PCA, 15.7 [3.2] years; lvPPA, 16.2 [3.3] years; amnestic AD, 14.8 [3.5] years; P = .02). A total of 18 of the 95 patients with PCA (18.9%) reported a history of LD, which is greater than the 3 of 100 patients (3.0%) in the amnestic AD cohort (P < .001) and the 10.0% expected rate in the general population (P = .007). In the PCA cohort, 13 of 95 patients (13.7%) had a nonlanguage mathematical and/or visuospatial LD; this rate was greater than that in the amnestic AD (1 of 100 [1.0%]; P < .001) and lvPPA (2 of 84 [2.4%]; P = .006) cohorts and greater than the 6.0% expected general population rate of mathematical LD (P = .003). Compared with the patients with PCA without LDs, the group with LDs had greater preservation of global cognition and a more right-lateralized pattern of atrophy.

Conclusions and Relevance  Nonlanguage mathematical and visuospatial LDs were associated with focal, visuospatial predominant neurodegenerative clinical syndromes. This finding supports the hypothesis that neurodevelopmental differences in specific brain networks are associated with phenotypic manifestation of later-life neurodegenerative disease.