While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, new research has shown that patients can still benefit from physical and cognitive rehabilitation.
Researchers have learned that mimicry may be a useful tool to help them regain lost abilities.
“Alzheimer’s patients are still able to voluntarily imitate the movement of an object, as well as that of a human being,” said Dr. Ambra Bisio, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Experimental Medicine at the University of Genoa. “If this ability is still in place, a patient could relearn how to perform actions that have become difficult due to the disease.”
Bisio, who specializes in how the brain responds to movement, particularly somebody else’s movements, collaborated with Professor Thierry Pozzo at INSERM-U1093 to show that Alzheimer’s patients can still mimic a simple gesture by a human or a moving dot on a computer screen.
The research, which suggests that these exercises may complement current therapeutic strategies, was published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.
Copying what someone else is doing is a basic social building block that helps people to learn and interact with others.
“By replicating its mother’s actions, a baby learns how to relate with people. It’s the same principle when a tennis student learns from her trainer how to execute a tennis service,” explained Bisio. “Our results suggest that imitation could be used during rehabilitation of Alzheimer’s patients.”
At the outset, it wasn’t clear whether this hardwired brain function would still operate once the disease had begun to take its toll, she noted. Alzheimer’s has a peculiar way of devastating some brain functions while leaving others untouched.
The new study showed that, at least for mild stages of the disease, Alzheimer’s patients retained this ability to imitate. They also found that patients performed better with a human trainer than they did with the computer.
According to the study’s results, training with a computer is possible, but the response is likely to be better with a human trainer. This may be because the emotional response that a patient experiences when interacting with a real person is still more beneficial than it is distracting, she said.
“Because Alzheimer’s damages the parts of the brain that link motor and cognitive function, behavioral treatments will still be important for patients, even after pharmaceutical treatments are discovered,” she said.