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Rote learning improves memory in older adults

New research from University College Dublin and NUI Maynooth shows

Memory loss – it can be as trivial as misplacing the car keys but, as we get older, we all experience lapses more frequently and find it more difficult to learn new things.

Some 40% of people over 60 years of age have some kind of memory difficulty. Mild, age-related memory loss is caused by the loss of brain cells over time, along with changes in brain chemistry.

Now, researchers in Ireland have discovered that taking memory exercises – in the form of rote learning of poems, articles or other materials can help combat memory loss.

So, along with a brisk walk by the sea or that stretch and sculpt class in the gym, older adults would do well to dust off that old copy of J Alfred Prufrock and exercise the mind, along with the body.

Their research, funded by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) Research Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI), studied how repeated cognitive exercise impacts memory and recall, as well as on the health of brain cells involved in memory.

Jonathan McNulty, Diagnostic Imaging, UCD School of Medicine and Medical Science, has managed to identify changes in brain chemistry that show improvements in memory and verbal recall among volunteers who took part in the research.

The volunteers were 24 healthy older adults aged between 55 and 70. They underwent six weeks of intensive rote learning, memorising a newspaper article or poem of 500 words, followed by six weeks of rest.

“We didn’t see an immediate improvement after the intensive memorization period. But following a six-week rest period, the volunteers manifested both metabolic changes in the brain and improved memory performance,” explains Jonathan McNulty.

An extensive battery of learning and memory tests was administered before and after the six-week learning period. Magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS), a special type of diagnostic imaging, was performed on half of the volunteers before and after the intensive learning session, and again six weeks later. MRS was used to measure changes in N-acetylaspartate, creatine and choline, three metabolites in the brain that are related to memory performance and neural cell health. The scans took place at Beaumont Hospital and the memory tests were conducted in Trinity College Dublin.

At the end of the six-week learning session, no changes in the brain metabolism or memory performance were observed. But following the rest period, all of the volunteers experienced improvements in their verbal and episodic memory—they were better able to remember and repeat a short story and a list of words and to recall events that occurred earlier in the day or week. These behavioural changes correlated with metabolic changes identified by MRS in the left posterior hippocampus, a memory-related brain structure.

“Unlike other studies on memory involving specific training regimes, memorizing is an everyday activity that anyone can undertake,” said co-author Dr Richard Roche from the Department of Psychology at National University of Ireland in Maynooth. “The brain is like a muscle that should be exercised through the retirement years as a defence against dementia, cognitive lapses and memory failure.”

The research findings were presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) in Chicago this November. They are expected to spark interest among others working in the area throughout the world.

Co-authors of the report include: P Brennan, C Doherty, D McMackin, S Sukumaran, IH Robertson, MA Mangaoang, SM O’Mara, S Mullally, J Hayden, J Prendergast, and M Fitzsimons.

Emma Kavanagh | alfa
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