If you have trouble remembering where your car keys are, new research shows that a memory training strategy can help.
Memory training can even re-engage the hippocampus, part of the brain critical for memory formation, said researchers at Emory University School of Medicine and Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center, who have been investigating memory-building strategies for people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). The techniques used in the study were known to be effective for healthy people, but it has been uncertain how they could affect brain function in people with MCI, the researchers note.
“Our results suggest that these strategies can help patients remember specific information, such as the locations of objects,” said lead author Benjamin Hampstead, Ph.D., assistant professor of rehabilitation medicine at Emory University and a clinical neuropsychologist.
“This is the first randomized controlled trial to show that these techniques are not only effective in MCI patients, but that they can also re-engage the hippocampus, which is a brain region that is critical for forming new memories.”
MCI is a diagnosis meant to identify those at increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. People with MCI have difficulty forming new memories but are still able to handle the tasks of daily living. The difficulty learning and remembering new information is because of impaired function in parts of the brain, including the hippocampus, the researchers explain.
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 heard 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, 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.
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.
The Emory/VA team also tested the effectiveness of the memory-building techniques for associating faces and names in another set of studies. They are continuing the study of the memory-building techniques, with the aim of determining how long the benefits of training last, and whether participants can use the strategies independently outside the laboratory.
The research is published online in the journal Hippocampus.
Source: Emory University