Verbal fluency as a quick and simple tool to help in deciding when to refer patients with a possible brain tumour

Karolis Zienius, Mio Ozawa, Willie Hamilton, Will Hollingworth, David Weller, Lorna Porteous, Yoav Ben-Shlomo, Robin Grant, Paul M Brennan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


BACKGROUND: Patients with brain tumours often present with non-specific symptoms. Correctly identifying who to prioritise for urgent brain imaging is challenging. Brain tumours are amongst the commonest cancers diagnosed as an emergency presentation. A verbal fluency task (VFT) is a rapid triage test affected by disorders of executive function, language and processing speed. We tested whether a VFT could support identification of patients with a brain tumour.

METHODS: This proof-of-concept study examined whether a VFT can help differentiate patients with a brain tumour from those with similar symptoms (i.e. headache) without a brain tumour. Two patient populations were recruited, (a) patients with known brain tumour, and (b) patients with headache referred for Direct-Access Computed-Tomography (DACT) from primary care with a suspicion of a brain tumour. Semantic and phonemic verbal fluency data were collected prospectively.

RESULTS: 180 brain tumour patients and 90 DACT patients were recruited. Semantic verbal fluency score was significantly worse for patients with a brain tumour than those without (P  <  0.001), whether comparing patients with headache, or patients without headache. Phonemic fluency showed a similar but weaker difference. Raw and incidence-weighted positive and negative predictive values were calculated.

CONCLUSION: We have demonstrated the potential role of adding semantic VFT score performance into clinical decision making to support triage of patients for urgent brain imaging. A relatively small improvement in the true positive rate in patients referred for DACT has the potential to increase the timeliness and efficiency of diagnosis and improve patient outcomes.

Original languageEnglish
Article number127
Pages (from-to)127
JournalBmc neurology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 4 Apr 2022


  • Brain tumour
  • Early diagnosis of cancer
  • Neurocognitive test
  • Verbal fluency


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