What causes severe forgetting in Alzheimer’s disease?

Read about a research project that we funded into developing a novel test to detect and measure memory impairment and improvement in Alzheimer's disease.

Lead Investigator: Dr Michael Craig
Institution: Heriot-Watt University
Grant type: Junior Fellowship
Duration: 36 months
Amount: £148,126

Why did we fund this project?

Comments from members of our Research Network:

'I particularly like the emphasis on early detection of memory loss as this seems to me to be a vital area for research.'

'Great background and enthusiasm. If this is shown to work, it would seem to be relatively simple to implement.'

'I like the idea of looking at how to improve memory retention. I also like the fact they intend to test both younger and older healthy participants.'

What do we already know?

Memory loss is often one of the first signs of dementia, particularly in Alzheimer's disease. In the very early stages, if someone has minor problems with memory that are not yet severe enough to interfere with daily life they may be given a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment.

An important part of keeping new memories is a process called consolidation, which strengthens a memory over time so that it is retained for longer. Dr Craig has previously completed a PhD project, also funded by Alzheimer's Society, investigating memory consolidation. He found that giving people time to rest quietly without distraction (known as 'wakeful rest') after learning allowed for better memory consolidation. When people with mild cognitive impairment were asked to learn new routes around a map in a virtual reality environment, they had better memories for the routes if they were given time for rest and consolidation to take place shortly after learning.

Research suggests that one way new memories are consolidated is by a process called 'reactivation'. This is where the patterns of brain activity that were seen whilst learning the material are activated again. This reactivation is thought to occur especially during periods of sleep and rest. 

What does this project involve?

Dr Craig's project will explore whether problems with reactivation of brain activity are related to early memory difficulties. He aims to find out whether learning is disrupted in people with mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer's disease because other information gets in the way. This could prevent this reactivation of memories. He will test whether being given time to rest after learning helps people to retain memories for longer and whether this is due to better reactivation. He will also investigate whether the benefits of rest continue as symptoms become more severe, and whether this is related to the ability to reactivate memories. 

To investigate these ideas he will use new memory tests that can detect changes in these aspects of memory, and a tool called electroencephalography (EEG) to measure brain activity and reactivation.

How will this benefit people with dementia?

This project will enhance our understanding of early memory problems in Alzheimer's disease. The tests that are developed as part of this study could be useful in the diagnosis and tracking of memory problems. It is hoped the insights gained from these studies will give rise to new strategies that could help people with Alzheimer's disease to retain memories.

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