Fading memories can learn new tricks

chris-materneIt’s said that old habits die hard, and for sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease, the resilience in the memory of practical skills may provide a pathway to learn new things.

Flinders psychology PhD student Chris Materne has begun a study involving people with probable or mild Alzheimer’s that aims to teach them to learn and remember simple, important facts or instructions.

The technique makes use of the complex, multi-layered nature of human memory, Ms Materne said.

“Different bits of memory hold on for longer than others – in particular, things that have become habitual tend to last,” she said.

“Highly practiced skills, such as playing the piano, seem to be more resistant to the disease process of Alzheimer’s than short term memory information, such as remembering names of people you’ve just met.

“We are trying to see if we can capitalise on that residual capacity to get information that is important and relevant to the individual into the memory system by bypassing the normal channels.”

Ms Materne says participants will be involved in nine hour-long sessions that aim to improve memory retention, with follow-up assessments after a few months.

The technique works by prompting participants to retrieve a fact or instruction over gradually increasing time intervals. The approach has achieved promising results in the United States, where results suggest that once an interval of about 12 to16 minutes has been attained, the information is consolidated and can be remembered for days or weeks.

The trial study will test the technique to assess how well it works as the disease progresses.
Ms Materne said that practical nature of the memory tasks – where keys are kept, or the names of grandchildren, for instance – means that environmental reinforcement is likely: that is, the questions will also get asked in real life.

The attitude of partners or carers is crucial, Ms Materne said. “Even if we achieve an effect with the training, if people don’t believe it will make a difference and fail to make use of it in the real world, then you don’t get any benefit,” she said.

Interested carers or partners of people with early Alzheimer’s who are living at home can contact Ms Materne about participating on (08) 8201 5870.

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