Lifelong Learning

Maintaining memory ability throughout the lifespan and restoring some memory ability in seniors with dementia-related memory impairment can have a major impact on their quality of life. Notably, extraordinary memory skills do not depend on extraordinary brain anatomy or cognitive superiority; they are acquired through training in mnemonic techniques [13, 17, 14, 16, 18]

Training with memory techniques can increase the ability to remember by a factor greater than 10 [15]! For example, memory athletes at the World Memory Championships remember more than 180 names and faces in only 15 minutes - and this without innate abilities, but through memory skills acquired through training in mnemonic techniques. 

With the help of these techniques, new information such as unfamiliar names and faces are linked to scaffolds of existing memories. The best known of these techniques is the Method of Loci, also called the mind palace technique, in which a route through a familiar environment serves as a memory scaffold. Unfortunately, extensive studies and meta-analyses have shown that the loci method is poorly suited for older people. While younger adults greatly benefit from such training, seniors fail to use established mnemonic strategies in daily life [1, 3, 19, 10].

We suggest two reasons for this lack of success with seniors. First, visuospatial memory (the form of memory that is used as a scaffold in established mnemonic techniques) depends on a particular brain region, the hippocampus [5]. Implicated in memory decline, the hippocampus is one of the first brain regions affected by Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia, which makes it hard for these patients to use visuospatial mnemonic strategies [2]. Second, a cultural stereotype that old people have bad memory and tend to get lost [8, 9] may lead to low confidence in older participants’ own abilities and thereby a decreased willingness to use strategies that appear to rely on skills they feel they are losing.

We developed a new mnemonic technique that uses personal stories instead of visuospatial information - the Autobiographical Mnemonic Technique.

After scientifically validating the efficacy of the Autobiographical Mnemonic Technique in the lab, we realized that using life-stories as a memory scaffold to remember new information might be the key to successful memory training in older adults: If there is anything seniors know they are good at, it is telling stories about their own lives!

Even early-stage Alzheimer’s patients have relatively intact autobiographical memory, because, it is thought, these memories are far less dependent on the hippocampus than memory for recent events or navigational paths [4]. Not only does the Life-Story strategy bypass the heavy demand on the hippocampus, it also leverages a form of memory seniors know they excel in and may even enjoy recalling.

Memory-skill training that older adults apply to daily life to counteract progressing memory impairment could have a profound impact on their independence, life-quality, and on alleviating the corresponding care-taking burden. The results of our project will provide important information to guide the development of personalized mnemonic training protocols for healthy and memory-impaired older adults.

For reference to cited literature, see: Bibliography

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