Can You Reverse Memory Loss?

Most people develop memory loss with age. But psychologists are finding that these problems are often correctable.People panic when they feel their memories slipping. The 68 year old congressman was frantic. Long proud of his ability to remember the names, the children’s name and even the birthdays of important constituents, he now made embarrassing mistakes. His memory clearly wasn’t what it used to be. Devastated, he sought help at a memory clinic near Washington. Could these memory lapses be reversed? Was his career in jeopardy? God forbid, was he in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease?People Panic When They Feel Their Memories SlippingHighly educated people in demanding jobs tend to panic when they feel their memories slipping. Psychologist Thomos H. Crook, founder and director of the Memory Assessment Clinic, headquartered in Bethesda, says, “We’ve had doctors, lawyers, business executives and other active people come to us for help. They are acutely aware of these deficits, and they’re terrified.”Recent research is helping to claim such fears. While it’s true that most people in their 50′s and 60′s begin to experience a decline in their ability to remember things, it is now known that this decline is rarely a sigh of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. In a majority of cases, memory loss is a result of normal changes in the brain, as well as psychological changes that typically come with aging. The good news is that, for most people, there is ways of rejuvenating memory.Drugs Improve Memory In Animals, Including PrimatesMore than a dozen drugs have been shown in U. S. Labs to improve memory in animals, including primates. Clinical trials with human volunteers are now under ay, and results are expected in a few years. But for now, there’s only one proven method for reversing memory loss: training. Just as physical exercise counteracts the effects of aging on the body, mental exercises help keep the memory relatively fit. Studies have shown that these techniques are extremely effective if a person is sufficiently motivated.Many Who Have Trouble Remembering Conclude They Have Alzheimer’sMany people who have trouble remembering things jump to the conclusion that they have Alzheimer’s, a disease which slowly saps the memory, eventually leading to severe confusion and disorientation. But epidemiological studies have shown that people between the ages of 65 and 75 have only a 2 percent chance of developing the disease. That means 98 out of 100 people who at age of 65 find themselves forgetting names, shopping lists and fact in magazine articles have normal, healthy brains.Neuroscientists now view learning and memory as a dynamic process that sculpts and re-sculpts the connections between nerve cells,, called neurons, in the brain. Every time a memory is laid down, some of these cells under go molecular changes that either strengthen or weaken their connection with other neurons. When a person forgets something, it most likely means that some the connections have been weakened or broken.There Are Three Basic Types Of MemoryThis pattern can be applied to the three basic types of memory: Long -term, primary and secondary. Long-term memory (called remote memory by scientists) involves information that is likely to be retained for a lifetime. Big events like a car crash or the birth of a child are indelibly traced into one’s neural circuitry.Primary memory involves information – a string of numbers like a phone number, for example – that is held only briefly in our focus of attention. Our ability to repeat a phone number immediately after hearing it seldom decline with age.But secondary memory – the ability to retain information beyond the span of a few moments – is vulnerable. Secondary memory is what “allows you to remember where you parked your car,” says Raymond T. Bartus, Senior vice president of research and development of Cortex Pharmaceuticals, a California company that is developing memory restoring drugs. “But you certainly don’t need to remember every place you ever parked your car.” So the memory is store just long enough – minutes, hours or days – to be useful, and in then forgotten.Age Affects Secondary Memory More Than The Other KindsPeople in their 60′s don’t perform as well as younger people on just about every test of secondary memory ever designed,, says David Arenberg, a psychologist at the National Institute of Aging. In on test, for example, people are shown a list of 12 words and after five minutes are asked which word they can remember. Sixty year olds simply do not do as well as 30 year olds. Moreover, participants in on going institute study show a steady decline when they are re-tested every six years.A panel of experts at national Institutes of Health has given this phenomenon a name: age associated memory impairment. Many insights into its causes have come from major advances in the neuro-sciences in the past decade. In terms of neurochemistry, age associated memory impairment and the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease are virtually indistinguishable. It may turn out that dementias like Alzheimer’s are exaggerated forms of natural aging, but way the process runs amok in some people and is relatively benign in others is unknown. Nor do scientists know why age affects secondary memory more than other kinds of memory.Many Neurons Shrink Or Atrophy With Age: An Outdated NotionAt one time, scientists believed that memory loss was caused by the death of an estimated 100,000 neurons each day. But better techniques for counting neurons have overturned that notion. It now appears that although some neurons do die in areas of the brain important for memory, the loss is more on the order of 100 cells per day. Over the course of five or six decades, these deaths mount up, so cell loss could account for some of the memory decline that comes with aging, explains Larry R. Squire, a neuro-scientist at San Diego Veterans Administration Medical Center. But perhaps a more important factor is that many neurons shrink or atrophy with age. According to one theory, this happens because of a decline in the production of substances called growth factors, which nourish neurons. Although these cells still function, they maintain fewer connections with other neurons.Another theory points to chemical changes. Chemicals called neurotransmitters shuttle back and forth between neurons at nerve ending, enabling the neurons to communicate. Changes in the level s of these neurotransmitters may be partly responsible for the memory loss associated with age. Experiments have supported this hypothesis. Researchers were able to induce in 25 year olds the kinds of memory lapses often experienced by 65 years olds by giving the younger people drugs that inhibit the action of cholinergic compounds, a class of neurotransmitters that are important for memory. When the drugs wore off, their memories returned to normal.Some prescription drugs that many older people take can have a similar deleterious effect. Here, the solution is straight forward: change the patient’s drug regimen.Drugs For Improving Memory For Available In EuropeScientists reason that if chemical changes in the brain contribute to memory loss, then chemicals, in the form of drugs, may be able to counteract it. More than 20 drugs for improving memory are now available in Europe, but they have not been tested under America’s rigorous standards. Only one drug, Hydergine, has so far been approved in the United States.Nevertheless, there is reason for optimism. Experiments have shown that the memories of healthy old monkeys can be improved with drugs. Other experiments have demonstrated that human experience the same kinds of memory loss as monkeys. It is reasonable to believe that if such problems can be reversed in monkey, they may also be reversible in humans.No CriteriaWhen Thomas Crook founded the Memory Assessment Clinics in 1985, one of his goals was to test various drugs that were believed to have the power to restore memory. He was, however, faced with a problem: Few healthy people had ever been test for memory function, so there are no criteria, or baselines, for distinguishing between the memory losses caused by aging. It was important to make such a distinction so the drugs could be tested with precision. Crook surmised that some drugs might benefit people whose memories were impaired by disease but not people experiencing normal memory, and vice versa. To determine which drugs were effective for which conditions, he first had to establish baselines.Crook’s New Memory Tests Are Computer AdministeredBut the available tests of memory function were outdated and irrelevant to problems in everyday live. So Crook and his colleagues developed several new tests. They are administered by a computerized system employing a video screen and a laser disk, which stores visual images in much the same way a compact disk stores sounds. Thousand of volunteer’s have taken the tests, which evaluate the ability to solve such everyday memory problems as finding misplaced items and remembering names. The results of these tests have shed light on normal and abnormal memory loss. For example, according to Crook, people suffering from normal memory loss tend to misplace objects, but they rarely get lost when retracing their steps along a familiar route. Losing one’s way in familiar territory can be a sign Alzheimer’s. Once baselines were established, the clinics began testing a number of memory enhancing drugs.Blood Pressure Drugs May Improve Memory As A Side EffectSeveral drugs prescribed for high blood pressure seem to improve memory as a side effect, and they are being tested in people wit normal blood pressure. Also under study are substances called phospholipids, which are believed to help neurons absorb chemicals important for memory. Raymond Bartus of Cortex reports that some cholinergic compounds have also shown promise in the laboratory. But these studies are still in the early stages, so it will probably be years before any new memory drugs receive Government approval. And both Crook and Bartus caution that no drug will be a panacea. In order to combat memory loss effectively, the psychological dimension of the problem must be addressed as well.The normal aging process leads many people to adopt a defeatist attitude. They become convinced that their memory is going down the tubes and noting can be done. A young g person who loses his car keys thinks,” I wish I’d paid attention,” or he turns to his wife and says, “Did you take my keys?” It is not a salient event. An older person is more likely to interpret the loss of the keys as significant. He or she thinks, “I am losing my memory.” These feeling can become a self fulfilling prophecy. They can also lead to depression, which is believed to contribute to memory loss.Many older people become less active both physically and mentally, As a result, they fin d themselves less stimulated by their environment. According to Dr Jermone Yesavage, a psychiatrist, at Stanford University, such stimulation may be an important factor in keeping the brain fit, and the lack of it may affect the biochemical processes involved in memory. In this view, memory is like a muscle: it atrophies if it’s not exercised.The First Step Is To Develop Self ConfidenceBut the solution to these problems does not begin with memory exercises, which require great motivation. A person must first develop self confidence. In trying to help people with age associated memory impairment, she uses behavioral therapy to counteract negative stereotype. She tries to get her patient to realize that although their are memory changes in later live, one can compensate and one can control one’s memory by trying hard and paying attention.Try Associating A Person’s Name With Something Concrete: Mental ImageryOne set of exercises for improving memory relies on mental imagery. The idea is to associate a person’s name with something concrete. For example, if you meet a person with prominent nose whose name is Bill, you might link the name with the image of a dollar bill stuck to his big nose. The next time you see him, the image should come to mind and see him, the image should come to min and you will remember his name. Dr Yesavage has tested the technique on Stanford undergraduates. “Within 15 minutes they can remember name like crazy,” he says.Build Up A Video Library Of ImagesOlder people, however, find it more difficult. To help them along, Thomas Crook and robin L. West, a psychologist at the University of Florida in Gainesvillem have produced a videotape that is the memory equivalent of a Jane Fonda workout, “Crook says. Here’s a sample exercise from the tape. A person’s face appears on the video screen, in this case a woman named Joan who has big brown eyes. You’re told to exaggerate her eyes in your mind. Then the eyes on the screen become enlarged. In step two, you are asked to imagine a picture that corresponds to the person’s name. The image for some name, like Penny, is obvious. In Joan’s case, you are told to conjure up the image of a phone. Then you are told to imagine the image superimposed on the face on the screen. And the video brings this to life: a phone appears over Joan’s big brown eyes. This technique is repeated with images of other people. Over time, as you build up a library of images, the technique becomes easier.The “Loci” Method Helps In Remembering ListsAnother memory improving technique, called the loci method, is helpful in remembering lists. Employed by Roman orators centuries ago, it doesn’t require a computer or a videotape. Say it’s a shopping list that you want to remember. First, you visualize landmarks along a familiar route through a house, an apartment or a room. For a house the landmarks might be mailbox, front door, hallway or so on, up to about 20 places. For a single room they might be doorway, desk and bed and so on.Once landmarks have been established, you mentally place a grocery items in each location. The bread might go in the mailbox, the milk near the front door, and the raisins in the hallway. When it’s time to recall the list of groceries, you “walk” along the route and remember each item as it is encountered. The task is easy because you don’t have to think about the order of the items and because the associations often provide striking images – loaf of bread stuffed into the mailbox, or raisins, strewn along the hallway. Using this method, lists can be stored in the memory for about 24 hours.How To Use Memorable Mental Images For NumbersOther tricks are helpful in remembering numbers. Say you need to remember “flight 216.” You could use memorable mental images for the numbers; two could be twins, one could be a pole and six a six pack of beer. Flight 216 then becomes a mental image of twins hanging from pole drinking six pack or rhymes and images can be used in conjunction: two and shoe, one and sun, six and sticks. Flight 216 becomes an image of a shoe sitting in the hot sun near a pile of stickers.Of course, the key to suing memory enhancing techniques successfully is motivation. Often the knowledge that memory loss is generally reversible is enough to get people to give it their best effort.The elderly Congressman certainly had enough motivation: he believed that his career was on the line, and noting motivates a politician more than the thought of being retired back to the district. With the help of techniques learned at Thomas Crook’s clinic the congressman now can remember names and faces as well as he ever did.