memory

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Facing The Inevitable: From Lost Keys To Dementia

I recently turned 50 and, on cue, my AARP card came in the mail and my doctor told me to schedule my first colonoscopy.

Also on cue, I’ve noticed what seems to be my own increased mental scattered-ness — misplaced keys, sluggish name recall. As a catastrophizer, I immediately link this apparent (but my doctor assures me normal) ever-so-slight decrease in cognitive sharpness to full blown Alzheimer’s and the start of a bleak, diminished future.

I am slightly comforted by two factors. First, I’m hardly alone. As Michael Kinsley eloquently reports in his recent New Yorker piece, “Have You Lost Your Mind?” we baby boomers are the first generation to have witnessed our parents cognitive decline and know in terrifying detail what’s in store for us; but at least we’re all on this sinking ship together. Second, there’s a lot of genetics behind Alzheimer’s and cognitive decline, and in that department, I’m not in bad shape. My parents kvetch, but they’re both nearly 80 and my mother, in particular, lives an incredibly active life on her own in Brooklyn: she recently learned chess, ushers off-Broadway with friends most weekends and walks and does yoga everyday.

joeduty/flickr

joeduty/flickr

Also, researchers are busily trying to tackle this problem on numerous fronts. On Sunday, for example, Harvard scientists reported what felt like a breakthrough: a new protein that in mice seems to have a rejuvenating effect on brains and muscles.

And a fairly technical study just out in Biological Psychiatry also hints at the possibility of future fixes: using something called “imaging genetics” researchers at the Lieber Institute for Brain Development and the National Institute of Mental Health are trying to identify “key molecular switches that control age-related memory impairment” and are specifically looking at a protein known to play a role in human memory, called “KIBRA and the gene responsible for its production.” Continue reading

Hope For The Older Mind — Maybe Not Clueless, Just ‘Fuller’

Mr. Mo-Fo/flickr

Mr. Mo-Fo/flickr

Last week I inadvertently dropped my keys into the garbage at Starbucks.

Of course, I didn’t realize it at the time, and it took about 45 minutes of retracing — back to the baristas, who said no, they’d found no keys, back to Trader Joe’s, again no trace of lost keys, and back, once more, to Starbucks, where I sheepishly asked the pierced and rather dismissive coffee girl if I could rifle through the garbage. After going through several bags, I reached into the last one and there, covered in wet grinds and God knows what else, were my car keys.

At first, the incident made my heart heavy, and led me to this story line: I’m so very middle-aged and edging into cognitive decline, joining the ranks of my senior relatives who do clueless things like drop half-eaten apples into the mail box, forget their kids’ birthdays, tell that story about the guy with the pig farm in Montana again and again and again. But in a slight glimmer of positivity, I thought, some part of my brain remembered that I’d thrown a few things in the garbage, and another part urged me to forge ahead, into the dank underbelly of the Starbucks trash bags, until I emerged triumphant. In other words, in a tiny, distant quadrant of my brain there was cognitive crispness, or at least a murky memory that contained the location of my keys.

And lo, in The New York Times this morning, Benedict Carey bolsters my positivity with a story headlined: The Older Mind May Just Be A Fuller Mind. OK, it’s a study with no actual subjects and it’s highly preliminary, but I’ll take it:

“…the new report will very likely add to a growing skepticism about how steep age-related decline really is,” he writes.

And here’s a little background:

Scientists who study thinking and memory often make a broad distinction between “fluid” and “crystallized” intelligence. The former includes short-term memory, like holding a phone number in mind, analytical reasoning, and the ability to tune out distractions, like ambient conversation. The latter is accumulated knowledge, vocabulary and expertise. Continue reading

‘Total Recall’ For Mice: Scientists Implant False Memories

Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Total Recall" trailer (YouTube)

Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Total Recall” trailer (YouTube)

In “Total Recall,” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best film ever (in my humble opinion), he plays a construction worker who seeks a “memory implant” from a company that provides them to customers who want a false memory of a wonderful vacation they can’t afford to take.

That’s just the beginning of the complex plot, based on the ingenious Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale,” but of course I thought of it immediately when I saw this major memory news out of MIT in the journal Science:

Researchers at the RIKEN-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics and MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory have implanted false memories into mice, potentially illuminating the mechanisms underlying the human phenomenon of “recalling” experiences that never occurred.

In previous work, the researchers had detected a single memory in the brain, genetically tagged the brain cells housing that memory with a light-sensitive protein, and flickered pulses of light to “turn on” the memory at any given moment. The latest work, to be reported in the journal Science, tinkers with that memory to change its contents—in essence, creating a false memory.

Mars, here I come. (Schwarzenegger’s character signs up for a Mars vacation implant.) Actually — sigh — I doubt we’ll be implanting false memories of Mars trips any sooner than we get to Mars for real. But this new work does have more immediate implications for the study of how we make memories — including how we seem to remember things that never actually happened.

For more on how the experiment was conducted, read the Globe’s Carolyn Johnson’s excellent report here. I spoke with Susumu Tonegawa, the MIT brain scientist and Nobel laureate who led the work, about what it could mean. Our conversation, lightly edited:

So in what way is this experiment a “first”?

This is the first time a study allowed for the making of animal models of human false memory.

We knew that false memories existed in humans. So this is the first time that it’s been shown in animals that it’s possible to create a false memory and manipulate it?

That’s exactly right — and that’s important because in humans, all false memory has been studied by psychology. But the human studies had a lot of limitations in terms of understanding what’s going on in the brain. So an animal model is very important.

How would you describe the implications of these animal findings for humans?

First, in terms of practicality, I think we’ve shown how easily false memory can be formed. And also, in terms of underlying brain mechanisms, we have demonstrated that the mechanism for forming false memory is virtually identical to the mechanism underlying the formation of real memory. Continue reading

More Reason To Sleep On It: Sorting Out The Brain’s ‘Inbox’

sleepingkid

Imagine you’re cleaning off your desk. You sort some papers into folders with the relevant labels. Others you red-tag as “urgent” or yellow-tag as “semi-urgent.” Quite a few go directly into the large circular file at your feet, also known as the trash basket.

Turns out, it seems that your brain does something very similar with your memories every night as you sleep.

The journal Nature Neuroscience has just published a special issue on memory, and among its authors is Dr. Robert Stickgold of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, a leading researcher on the role that sleep plays in consolidating memories.

In the past, my layperson’s take-home message from his complex research might have been, “Sleep helps strengthen memories. So if it’s the night before an exam and you have the option of cramming more or sleeping, better to sleep.”

But there’s ever so much more to know, and for researchers to find out — about sleep states beyond REM, about how our brains “tag” some memories for retention and dump others, about how sleep can improve performance overnight — even about why toddlers so desperately need naps.

Our conversation, lightly edited:

You’ve written a sweeping review of years of recent research on what sleep does to memories. How would you sum up for a lay audience what we now know?

I’d start by telling them a true story, which is that about 50 years ago, my father commented to me that when he was in law school studying for an exam, he would stay up late at night reading case after case, and go to sleep with a complete mishmash of cases in his mind. When he woke up the next morning, they had just all been filed away in the right spot. That was 50 years ago, and I can now say, ‘Yes, and now we have an idea how.’

It really does happen while you sleep, and although some of it can happen while you’re awake, especially if you’re consciously working at it, sleep seems to be a time that’s been set aside to make sure that filing gets done, even without your awareness or intent.

So sleep is a time of sorting and discarding memories?

Sleep is doing about five things. Continue reading

Your Brain On Butter: The Fats That May Hasten Mental Decline

Researchers link saturated fats found in butter and red meat to cognitive and memory decline in older women. (madlyinlovewithlife/flickr)

What’s good for the heart is good for the brain, the medical thinking goes.

Here’s the latest twist: What’s bad for the heart turns out to be bad for the brain. Put another way, some fats may make us stupider — or at least less cognitively on the ball.

Amid growing evidence that what we eat has a profound impact on brain function, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston found that women who consumed the highest amounts of saturated fat — which can come from animal fats like red meat and butter — had worse overall cognitive function and memory over four years of testing compared to women who ate the lowest amounts of such fats. Moreover, women who consumed the most monounsaturated fats — think olive oil — scored better on the cognitive function tests over time.

(Trans-fats found in processed and baked goods — like those ginormous muffins they used to sell at the corner deli — are also considered “bad” but in this particular study, they weren’t associated with declines in cognitive ability.)

To be clear, this latest research doesn’t mean that if you start cooking with olive oil instead of butter you’ll suddenly be able to locate your car keys or remember your mother-in-law’s birthday.

But it does strongly suggest that the type of fat you eat matters, Continue reading

Harvard Memory Expert On Rick Perry’s ‘Oops’ Moment

You almost had to feel sorry for Rick Perry last night.

His breathtaking inability to remember the third federal agency he’d shut down as President (!!) was so utterly embarrassing — at that level, in that context, for that long — I wondered whether there must be some biological breakdown behind it.

So I emailed leading memory researcher Daniel L. Schacter, a professor of psychology at Harvard, and asked what he thought. Here’s his quick response:

The kind of memory problem suffered by Perry corresponds to what I called
“blocking” in my book on The Seven Sins of Memory (2001) – blocking is the third of the seven sins. Blocking refer to a temporary inability to retrieve information that is available in memory. Interestingly, blocking occurs most commonly for proper names, as was the case here. Blocking can be increased by stress and also by aging, although we can’t know for sure whether either one was a factor in this instance. Also, blocking tends to occur for information that is familiar, but has not been retrieved frequently or recently – again, I don’t know for sure whether that applies here.

Daily Rounds: Supreme Court Hears Vaccine Case; Keeping Patients On Drugs; Radiologist Downsizing; Hormones And Kidney Stones; Losing Your Memory In Retirement

Supreme Court to Consider Vaccine Case – NYTimes.com “The safety of vaccines is at the heart of a case expected to be heard on Tuesday by the United States Supreme Court, one that could have implications for hundreds of lawsuits that contend there is a link between vaccines and autism. “(The New York Times)

Express Scripts Seeks to Keep Patients on Drugs, Reduce Health-Care Costs – Bloomberg “Express Scripts Inc., one of the largest managers of prescription drug benefits in the U.S., introduced a program designed to cut medical costs by identifying the chronically ill patients most likely to neglect medicines within a year. Computer models that tag the potentially noncompliant will let St. Louis-based Express Scripts contact patients before they stop taking drugs.” (bloomberg.com)

Running a hospital: First bend in the health care cost curve Radiologists are losing their jobs, writes Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Chief Paul Levy: “Recent trends in radiology imaging portend a dramatic and rapid reduction in this segment of a hospital's business plan,” he writes. “Our Chief of Radiology summarizes our experience — common to other hospitals as well: ‘The biggest hit has been in CT, the modality we are most dependent on for revenue. We are about 10% down in CT cases from last year, due to a combination of patient and physician fears about radiation exposure, more prudent ordering of studies by physicians, leakage out of the medical center, and the introduction of physician incentive programs (to minimize the amount of imaging) by some insurers.'” (Running A Hospital)

Hormones linked with kidney stones in older women – Boston.com “Among more than 24,000 postmenopausal women taking either hormones or dummy pills, those using hormones were 21 percent more likely to develop kidney stones over about five years.” (Boston Globe)

Memory Decline Accompanies Earlier Retirement, Study Finds – NYTimes.com “The implication, the economists and others say, is that there really seems to be something to the “use it or lose it” notion — if people want to preserve their memories and reasoning abilities, they may have to keep active.” (The New York Times)