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Researchers Combat Memory Loss - 2003-07-27

Have you ever walked down a hallway, only to forget where you're going? Or opened a refrigerator door and wondered exactly what you're looking for? These are common and harmless memory lapses. But when they pop up frequently, you get to wondering if they could be early warnings of darker days ahead, eroded by debilitating Alheizmer's Disease. In the United States, such concerns have spawned a flood of memory tests, remedies, and exercises. Not to mention a rush of books about memory loss. Gary Small has written one of them.

It's called The Memory Bible: An Innovative Strategy For Keeping Your Brain Young. Mr. Small directs the Center on Aging at the University of California at Los Angeles. He says brain scans can detect signs of Alzheimer's Disease decades before old age. So the strategy is to protect and invigorate the brain before there is damage.

"We're all on this slippery slope [to memory loss]. And what determines the rate that we slide down that slope has to do with our genetic inheritance, but more importantly the kinds of lifestyle choices we make. In fact, studies of animals, of human volunteers, show that stress definitely impairs memory performance. And in fact in the animal studies it literally shrinks the memory centers of the brain, the hippocampus," he says. "So we want to avoid chronic stress but have a certain level of mental activity and novel mental challenges to keep our brains healthy and young. And I like to talk about 'mental aerobics', a little bit like jumping-jacks for the brain, because the studies have found that, indeed, if you have novel mental challenges, that appears to protect our brain cells."

Memory loss is one component of what researchers call "cognitive aging", a deterioration in learning ability and brain function. Molly Wagster, who directs a neuropsychology program at the U.S. National Institute on Aging, says there are different types of memory, including the memorization of material for a test or speech, and intuitive memory in which one reaches back into life experiences to play a piano, ride a bike, or recite a childhood nursery rhyme. "There's also a type of memory that we call 'working memory,' where you hold something in your memory long enough to do something with it, such as remembering where you parked your car, or remembering a phone number before you dial it," she says.

Researchers now think various types of memory are controlled from different parts of the brain, somehow connected by mysterious circuits to produce the fullest sense of what we call "memory."

For many years, Ms. Wagster says, it was scientific dogma that humans are born with all the nerve cells in the brain that we will ever have, that the cells die off as we age, and that they cannot be regenerated. "In about the past five years, there have been several pieces of evidence indicating that there are things one can do to promote neurogenesis in the brain," she says.

Such as vigorous mental exercises like learning a new language or solving difficult crossword puzzles.

But how does one know if these exercises, or vitamin treatments, or the dozens of herbal supplements like Ginko Biloba and ginseng that are exploding on the marketplace as purported brain-builders, are working?

Richard Goldwasser, a Chicago psychologist, developed a memory test to find out. It's called "Validation." Now in his fifties, Mr. Goldwasser says he began to notice that he was forgetting little details that patients were telling him. And he was having trouble remembering factoids he once knew quite well, like the names of musical groups. Other therapist friends reported the same kinds of annoying, or alarming, memory lapses. "In fact a patient that was referred to me - he was about my age, and he had a 2-year-old," he says. "His wife referred him because he forgot that the baby was in the back seat of the car. They were going shopping, brought in the groceries. He forgot the baby was still in the baby seat, went downstairs to do work. Twenty minutes later, his wife says, 'Where's the baby?'"

This sparked his idea for a test of memory levels and possible memory loss. The 45-minute Validation test begins with a "baseline", a measurement of how one's memory rates at the moment. "There's an audio tape, and the tape might say, 'Listen carefully. In a moment you will hear some numbers. Three. Seven. Nine. Wait. Write it in your test booklet.' Then it progresses. Listen to this set of numbers: Two. Eight. Four. Three. Six.' And it gets progressively more difficult. So finally you're hearing, 'Seven. Nine. Two. Four. Three. Eight' and more."

"Validation" also tests people's recollections of pictures and details from stories. After weeks or months, during which a person may try to improve his or her memory with exercises or supplements, the test is taken again. People score it themselves, or says Mr. Goldwasser, "we'll score it for them and then, if they want, actually send the report and our interpretations to their physician, making the test part of their annual physical. If you see that your memory is starting to really score low on the test, then your doctor could say, 'You know what? Let's start taking something. Let's try to nip this in the bud.'"

When memory loss becomes worrisome, Memory Bible author Gary Small recommends a three-step drill to perk up one's brainpower. The first is to do a better job of concentrating on the details of faces, names, or situations. The second is to file away mental snapshots of those faces, names, or situations. "And the final step is 'connect,' which means you literally connect up those mental snapshots in your mind's eye. So it's 'look,' 'snap,' 'connect.'"

Several memory courses employ word association. One might remember "Mr. White," for instance, by picturing a snowstorm, or envision a meter stick to remember "Ms. Long." Gary Small gives the example of meeting a woman named Beatty, whose lips are a prominent feature. "And to connect them, I might see [Hollywood actor] Warren Beatty leaning over and kissing her on the lips," he says.

The UCLA Center on Aging offers a free memory-training course to clubs and senior centers in the Los Angeles area. Mr. Small says so-called "Baby Boomers," born shortly after World War II, who can remember vivid details of where they were and what they were doing when President John Kennedy was assassinated but usually cannot remember a thing from the weeks before and after that November day in 1963, are eager to hear of ways to wake up their flagging memories. Some of them may themselves be caring for a parent with dementia or Alzheimer's Disease. They know they, too, could soon be sliding down Gary Small's "slippery slope" into clinical forgetfulness before they know it.