Alzheimer's Patients Don't Forget Everything

Study finds part of brain used for rote learning remains intact

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THURSDAY, June 10, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Some forms of memory may remain intact in people with Alzheimer's disease, says a Howard Hughes Medical Institute study.

The researchers, reporting in the June 10 issue of Neuron, found people in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease still possess a specific form of memory used for rote learning of skills, even when these people have lost memories of loved ones and significant events.

The finding may help improve training and rehabilitation programs meant to bolster cognitive function in people with Alzheimer's disease and in healthy older people.

"From this and other studies we have done, it appears that a number of brain systems are more intact in Alzheimer's than we had anticipated," researcher Randy L. Buckner said in a prepared statement.

"The findings suggest that if we can help people use these brain systems optimally by providing the right kinds of cues or task instructions, we may be able to improve their function," Buckner said.

The study included 24 older adults in the early stages of Alzheimer's, 33 healthy older adults and 34 young adults. The researchers compared the memory capabilities of the three groups. Each person was shown a series of words and asked to decide whether the words represented living or non-living objects.

"For this task, we found that all three groups showed a significant reduction with practice in the time required to decide on a word, which is the hallmark of implicit learning," Buckner said.

The people were then asked to repeat the task while their brains were scanned using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

"What was surprising and novel in this study is that the brain region with the greatest activity during the task was the high-level region of the frontal cortex," Buckner said.

"We didn't expect this because high-level cognition is affected in Alzheimer's disease. These results suggest that despite the damage to these areas in Alzheimer's, certain memory processes that seem to depend on them remain functionally intact," he said.

More information

The U.S. National Institute on Aging has more about Alzheimer's disease.

SOURCE: Howard Hughes Medical Institute, news release, June 10, 2004

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