Reversing the Decline of Working Memory in the Elderly

An unfortunate but natural aspect of aging is the decline of memory. Elderly adults — even those without a neurodegenerative condition such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia — usually find their memory declines with age. This decline can negatively affect an individual’s quality of life and their ability to remain independent.

Dr. Robert Reinhardt, the director of Boston University’s Visual Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, along with a group of colleagues, recently conducted a study which sought to explain the decline of “working memory” as we age.

According to Dr. Reinhardt, working memory is the “workbench of the mind […] the sketchpad of the mind”. It is the aspect of memory which allows us to remember information for short periods of time, and to use this information to make decisions, calculations, and assessments. Working memory allows us to effectively handle the various situations we face throughout the day. In the words of Dr. Reinhardt, “Working memory […] is where we think, where we problem-solve, where we reason, plan, perform mathematical calculations, make decisions. It’s essentially where consciousness lives.”

A major goal in the field of neurocognitive aging is to understand the cause of working memory decline as we age, and to find effective methods to combat this decline. Dr. Reinhardt and his colleagues investigated one of the main theories for working memory decline, and tested a novel way to reverse this decline. Their results were published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

The generally accepted theory on working memory decline is that aging causes various areas of the brain which worked synchronously when we were young to begin to function in a desynchronized way as we age. A fundamental aspect of this desynchronization was thought to be the disruption of specific patterns of electrical activity within the brain. In particular, two specific types of brain waves – gamma waves and theta waves, were hypothesized to desynchronize as we age.

In order to test this hypothesis, Dr. Reinhardt and his colleagues used EEG scans to monitor and study the brain activity of two groups of people: the first group contained participants between the ages of 20 and 29, while the second group contained participants between the ages of 60 and 76. In analyzing the results of the data collected, the researchers were able to show that, as expected, older adults performed more poorly on tasks requiring working memory. More importantly, the data showed that older adults displayed desynchronized theta and gamma brain waves.

Once this fundamental fact was established, the researchers hypothesized that stimulating the brain via a specific type of electrical current could help to resynchronize an individual’s theta and gamma brain waves.

In fact, the results of this new method were so successful that after receiving this novel form of brain stimulation, the elderly participants not only improved their performance on tasks requiring working memory, they even improved to the point that they performed nearly as well as the younger participants.

One aspect of this research that was specially intriguing was that the positive effects of brain stimulation continued for 50 minutes after brain stimulation had stopped. Dr. Reinhardt and his colleagues pointed out that this information provides new insights into age-related memory disorders, and insights into potential paths to help reverse conditions that until now were thought to be irreversible. The researchers are now studying the effects of this new technique on individuals with Alzheimer’s disease.

At Hamilton Grove Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center, in Hamilton, NJ, we are experts in handling all levels of cognitive decline, from mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer’s and other dementias.

We have created a unique environment and care program specifically designed to address the needs of this population. Our Alzheimer’s Unit is situated in a separate, secure wing to ensure the safety and well-being of our residents. It offers a structured daily routine, mind-stimulating activities, excellent social interaction, with optimal patient independence in a calm and soothing atmosphere.

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