Memory-Training Techniques Help Re-Engage the Brain

Posted on March 22, 2012, 6 a.m. in Brain and Mental Performance Alzheimer's Disease
Memory-Training Techniques Help Re-Engage the Brain

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a condition in which people have difficulty forming new memories, but are still able to complete tasks of daily living in the independent fashion. However, many people with MCI subsequently develop Alzheimer's disease. Researchers at Emory University School of Medicine and Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center (Georgia, USA) have found that MCI patients who engaged in memory-training strategies re-engage the hippocampus– a brain region critical for memory formation.  The study focused on how well participants could remember the locations of common household objects. The memory-building strategy involves three steps. First, participants focused on a feature of the room that stood out and was close to the object, then they learned a short explanation for why the object was in that location. Finally, they created a mental picture to tie the information together. In several sessions, study participants were shown household objects one at a time, each object followed by its location in a computer-simulated room. An hour later, they were asked to identify the location of each object from among three choices. After the first visit, participants returned to the laboratory for three training sessions. On a fifth visit two weeks later, they were evaluated on how well they could remember the objects' locations. A control group received the same amount of exposure to the objects and their locations, but was not given explicit training. As expected, at the start of the study MCI patients had more difficulty remembering where objects were and showed less brain activity in the hippocampus (measured through functional magnetic resonance imaging) when compared with healthy people. Both people with MCI and healthy controls benefitted significantly more from using memory strategies than from mere exposure. In addition, MCI patients in the memory strategy-training group showed increased activity in the hippocampus as they learned and remembered the location of the objects. Participants in the training group showed increases in hippocampal activity, even when trying to remember the locations of new objects.  Reporting the capacity of mnemonic strategy training to facilitate hippocampal functioning, the study authors conclude that: "cognitive rehabilitation techniques may help mitigate hippocampal dysfunction in [mild cognitive impairment] patients.”

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Benjamin M. Hampstead, Anthony Y. Stringer, Randall F. Stilla, Michelle Giddens, K. Sathian.  “Mnemonic strategy training partially restores hippocampal activity in patients with mild cognitive impairment.”  Hippocampus, 27 February 2012.


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