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To slow cognitive decline, researchers employ two different memory strategies

Study compares two popular forms of cognitive training that people often use to improve learning and memory

What’s the best way to improve your memory as you age? Turns out, it depends, according to a new study co-authored by a Penn State researcher. But your fourth-grade math teacher may have been onto something with the phrase to help you remember how to solve a complicated problem: Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally.

The study, led by researchers at the University of Michigan and Penn State College of Medicine, compared two approaches for people with an early form of memory loss – mnemonic strategy training, which aims to connect what someone is trying to remember to something else like a word, phrase or song, and spaced retrieval training, which gradually increases the amount of time between tests of remembering something.

People with mild cognitive impairment, which can but does not always lead to a later Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis, were better able to remember information when using one of the cognitive training approaches. However, the data, and brain scans that revealed which areas of the brain were more active, showed each activity works differently.

“Our research shows that we can help people with mild cognitive impairment improve the amount of information they learn and remember; however, different cognitive training approaches engage the brain in distinct ways,” said Benjamin Hampstead, professor of psychiatry at Michigan Medicine and the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System. He directs the Research Program on Cognition and Neuromodulation Based Interventions and leads the clinical core and co-leads the Neuroimaging Core at the federally funded Michigan Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.

Fifty-nine participants with mild cognitive impairment were randomly assigned to receive the mnemonic strategy training or spaced retrieval training. The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure brain activity following memory training sessions. Their findings showed that each memory strategy engaged the brain in unique ways. The results were published in Alzheimer’s and Dementia, a journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.

“Mnemonic strategy training increased activity in the brain areas often affected by Alzheimer’s disease, which likely explains why this training approach helped participants remember more information and for longer,” Hampstead said. “In contrast, those completing rehearsal-based training showed reduced brain activity, which suggests they were processing the information more efficiently.”

Hampstead worked with Dr. Krish Sathian, professor and chair of the Department of Neurology. Sathian remarked, “It was very heartening to see the neuroplasticity and memory improvements resulting from cognitive training in people with mild cognitive impairment, despite the association with neurodegeneration.”

The Cognitive Neurology Program at Penn State Health is using mnemonic strategy training to help people with memory impairment improve their function.

Anthony Stringer of Emory University and Alexandru Iordan and Rob Ploutz-Snyder of University of Michigan also contributed to this study. Conflicts of interest are documented in the manuscript.

This research was supported by the National Institute on Aging and the Veterans Health Administration. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the funders.

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