Alzheimer's may leave some forms of memory intact

Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) researchers have made the surprising discovery that people with Alzheimer's disease retain the capability for a specific form of memory used for rote learning of skills, even though their memories of people and events are extinguished.

The scientists' discovery suggests new strategies to improve training and rehabilitative programs that may bolster the retained cognitive function of those with Alzheimer's disease and healthy older people. "From this and other studies we have done, it appears that a number of brain systems are more intact in Alzheimer's than we had anticipated," said Howard Hughes Medical Institute researcher Randy L. Buckner at Washington University in St. Louis. "The findings suggest that if we can help people use these brain systems optimally by providing the right kinds of cues or task instructions, we may be able to improve their function."

In an article published in the June 10, 2004, issue of the journal Neuron, Buckner and Cindy Lustig, also at Washington University, compared implicit memory capabilities in young adults, healthy older adults and those in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. Buckner said that although researchers have used behavioral studies to distinguish implicit memory from the explicit memory used to recall past associations and events, the neurobiology underpinning of implicit memory remains a mystery. In anatomical terms, the kind of explicit memory that is severely impaired in Alzheimer's disease depends on the condition of the medial temporal lobe, including the hippocampus, said Buckner. "The form of memory that enables us to learn a cognitive skill is less well understood, although it is thought to depend on areas of the cerebral cortex," said Buckner.

For their study, Lustig and Buckner recruited 34 young adults, 33 healthy older adults, and 24 older adults in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. They designe

Contact: Jim Keeley
Howard Hughes Medical Institute

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