Method of Loci: How to train your brain like a memory champion's - Radboud University Medical Centre in the Netherlands
Becoming a memory champion is easier than you think.
The techniques mnemonists use to memorise hundreds of words or digits in minutes can be learned by anyone, a study suggests. After just six weeks’ training, participants more than doubled their performance in a memory test, and scans showed their brains were functioning more like those of competitive memorisers.
Memory athletes compete to memorise huge strings of information, such as decks of cards or digits of pi. To investigate what enables them to do it, Martin Dresler at Radboud University Medical Centre in the Netherlands recruited 23 of the world’s top 50 memory athletes. He was helped by a postdoc, Boris Konrad, who has competed in memory championships himself.
All the athletes had their brains scanned to look for features that might mark them out from the general population. To Dresler’s surprise, there seemed to be nothing special about their brain structure: no particular areas or connections that looked larger or different. However, functional MRI scans revealed that the patterns of activity in brain areas related to memory and visuospatial processing looked different when the experts weren’t performing any particular tasks
Mental landmarks. The strategy almost all top memorisers rely on is the “method of loci”, which involves imagining a route that they know well, such as moving around their home or travelling to work, and associating the information to be learned with landmarks along that route. They can then retrieve the information later on by making the same journey in their mind and seeing the objects connected to each landmark.
“Without a single exception, all the memory athletes told us they weren’t born prodigies, but they learned about these memory strategies, and only with these strategies can they perform at a high level,” says Dresler.
Next, he recruited 51 volunteers who had never previously tried to improve their memories, to see whether they could now do so using the same methods as the mnemonists.
The volunteers were split into three groups. One was instructed to practise the method of loci for 30 minutes a day for six weeks. The members of the second group were told to practise holding information in their heads for short periods without being given a particular strategy to help them. The third group did no training.
Memory upgradeAt the start of the study, the volunteers could remember 26 to 30 words on average from a list of 72. After six weeks, those who trained using the method of loci could typically remember a further 35 words. The other groups showed far smaller improvements: 11 extra words for the uncoached memory group and nine for the group that did no training.
Brain scans also revealed that the brain activity of the method-of-loci volunteers became closer to that of the elite memorisers. And the more their brain activity resembled the mnemonists, the bigger their gain in performance.
When tested again four months later, the method-of-loci group still performed far better than the other groups.
“From this we learn that the most important method the world’s best memorisers use – and on which they base all their performance – can be learned by naive subjects,” says Dresler. “And by learning it, their brains are changed in the direction of those of the world’s best memorisers.”
Henry Roediger of Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, says the results are impressive. But he says they may undermine the case for many apps marketed as being able to improve memory. “Most commercial brain-training programs do not use method-of-loci training,” he says.
And even training using the method of loci may not improve your ability to function in everyday life, Roediger adds. “I have spoken to many memory competitors who can perform astounding feats and yet they say they can be quite forgetful in daily life, like the rest of us,” he says. “They are not generally using their techniques as they walk around the world any more than you or I are.”
Journal reference: Neuron, DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2017.02.003
From the Washington Post, by Melissa Bailey February 6, 2017
Despite a 99 percent failure rate and a recent setback, Alzheimer’s researchers are plowing ahead with hundreds of experiments — and a boost in federal money — to try to crack a deadly disease that has flummoxed them for decades.
A law passed by Congress in December and signed by President Barack Obama sets aside $3 billion over 10 years to fund research of brain diseases and precision medicine, a shot in the arm for Alzheimer’s research. The law, called the 21st Century Cures Act, also includes prize money to encourage Alzheimer’s experiments.
But billions of dollars have so far made little progress in decoding the memory-robbing disease, which affects 5 million Americans. Alzheimer’s is the nation’s sixth-leading cause of death. Decades of research have not produced a single drug that alters its course.
December began with a major setback: Eli Lilly shared disappointing results of a late-stage clinical trial of its experimental drug solanezumab, which failed to significantly slow Alzheimer’s progression.
But scientists aren’t giving up on the main hypothesis behind Eli Lilly’s trial: that Alzheimer’s can be defeated by using drugs to attack amyloid plaques that build up in the brain. Some scientists believe these cause the disease.
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Association Between Mentally Stimulating Activities in Late Life and the Outcome of Incident Mild Cognitive Impairment, With an Analysis of the APOE ε4 Genotype
From JAMA Neurology, January 30, 2017 (click here for full text PDF article)
Question Does engaging in a mentally stimulating activity in old age associate with neurocognitive function?
Findings In this population-based cohort study, 1929 cognitively normal participants 70 years or older were followed for approximately 4 years. The following activities were associated with significant decreased risk of new-onset mild cognitive impairment: computer use, craft activities, social activities, and playing games.
Meaning Engaging in a mentally stimulating activity even in late life may decrease the risk of mild cognitive impairment.
Abstract (click Read More)
From our friends at the Amen Clinics . . .
Losing your memory or developing brain fog in your 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, or even 80’s is NOT normal. Just because it happens to so many people and is somewhat common does not mean that it is normal or healthy. It is a sign of trouble and needs to be taken seriously.
Putting a Memory Rescue Plan in PlaceIf you experience challenges with your memory, it is important to realize that you are on a precipice – you can ignore the fact that you are standing on the edge of that cliff, keep walking and fall off. Or you can get serious about taking better care of your brain, and turn around.
If you want to rescue your memory, here are 7 steps to take:
Love and Protect Your BrainJust as a parent shields a child from harm, it is imperative to take a proactive approach in keeping your brain safe from trouble. As simple as this idea is, most people never really think about brain security. Remember – your brain is soft, your skull is hard. It is critical that you protect your brain from concussions. You can also protect your brain by reducing your exposure to toxins – such as pesticides, molds, carbon monoxide, cleaning products, heavy metals, drugs, and alcohol.
Know and Optimize Your Important NumbersHaving important health numbers at an optimal level is critical to brain function. However, you can’t change what you don’t measure. Be aware of your:
Engage in New LearningResearch is clear that new learning and stimulating lifestyles lead to better cognitive outcomes later in life. If your job does not provide new learning opportunities, create them for yourself – take a class, start a new hobby, learn a new language, begin playing an instrument.
Get Good SleepHealthy sleep is absolutely essential to a brain healthy life. Sleep rejuvenates all the cells in your body, gives brain cells a chance to repair themselves, helps wash away neurodegenerative toxins that build up during the day, and activates neuronal connections that might otherwise deteriorate due to inactivity. Practice good sleep hygiene to optimize your sleep habits.
ExerciseExercise alone is the veritable fountain of youth. The more you exercise, the healthier your blood vessels and blood flow, which leads to overall improved brain function and better memory. Make sure to combine aerobic exercise four to five times per week with weight training two to three times per . . .
Alzheimer’s: Every Minute Counts, premiering January 25, 2017, at 10pm ET, is an urgent wake-up call about the national threat posed by Alzheimer’s disease. Many know the unique tragedy of this disease, but few know that Alzheimer’s is one of the most critical public health crises facing America. This powerful documentary illuminates the social and economic consequences for the country unless a medical breakthrough is discovered for this currently incurable disease.
If learning can be assimilated into an existing knowledge base, advantage tilts to the old.
If you are over 20, look away now. Your cognitive performance is probably already on the wane. The speed with which people can process information declines at a steady rate from as early as their 20s.
A common test of processing speed is the “digit symbol substitution test”, in which a range of symbols are paired with a set of numbers in a code. Participants are shown the code, given a row of symbols and then asked to write down the corresponding number in the box below within a set period. There is nothing cognitively challenging about the task; levels of education make no difference to performance. But age does. Speed consistently declines as people get older.
Why this should be is still a matter of hypothesis, but a range of tentative explanations has been put forward. One points the finger at myelin, a white, fatty substance that coats axons, the tendrils that carry signals from one neuron to another. Steady reductions in myelin as people age may be slowing down these connections. Another possibility, says Timothy Salthouse, director of the Cognitive Ageing Laboratory at the University of Virginia, is depletion of a chemical called dopamine, receptor sites for which decline in number with advancing age.
Fortunately, there is some good news to go with the bad . . .
Older, fitter adults experience greater brain activity while learning - Boston University Medical Center
Older adults who experience good cardiac fitness may be also keeping their brains in good shape as well.
In what is believed to be the first study of its kind, older adults who scored high on cardio-respiratory fitness (CRF) tests performed better on memory tasks than those who had low CRF. Further, the more fit older adults were, the more active their brain was during learning. These findings appear in the journal Cortex. Difficulty remembering new information represents one of the most common complaints in aging and decreased memory performance is one of the hallmark impairments in Alzheimer's disease.
Healthy young (18-31 years) and older adults (55-74 years) with a wide range of fitness levels walked and jogged on a treadmill while researchers assessed their cardio-respiratory fitness by measuring the ratio of inhaled and exhaled oxygen and carbon dioxide. These participants also underwent MRI scans which collected images of their brain while they learned and remembered names that were associated with pictures of unfamiliar faces.
Meditation and music may help reverse early memory loss in adults at risk for Alzheimer’s Disease - West Virginia University
Simple meditation or a music listening program may have multiple benefits for older adults with pre-clinical memory loss - West Virginia University
In a recent study of adults with early memory loss, a West Virginia University research team lead by Dr. Kim Innes found that practice of a simple meditation or music listening program may have multiple benefits for older adults with preclinical memory loss.
In this randomized controlled trial, 60 older adults with subjective cognitive decline (SCD), a condition that may represent a preclinical stage of Alzheimer's disease, were assigned to either a beginner meditation (Kirtan Kriya) or music listening program and asked to practice 12 minutes/day for 12 weeks. As detailed in a paper recently published by the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease, both the meditation and music groups showed marked and significant improvements in subjective memory function and objective cognitive performance at 3 months. These included domains of cognitive functioning most likely to be affected in preclinical and early stages of dementia (e.g., attention, executive function, processing speed, and subjective memory function). The substantial gains observed in memory and cognition were maintained or further increased at 6 months (3 months post-intervention).
Concussions accelerate Alzheimer's disease-related brain atrophy and cognitive decline.
New research has found concussions accelerate Alzheimer's disease-related brain atrophy and cognitive decline in people who are at genetic risk for the condition.
The findings, which appear in the journal Brain, show promise for detecting the influence of concussion on neurodegeneration.
Moderate-to-severe traumatic brain injury is one of the strongest environmental risk factors for developing neurodegenerative diseases such as late-onset Alzheimer's disease, although it is unclear whether mild traumatic brain injury or concussion also increases this risk.
Researchers from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) studied 160 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, some who had suffered one or more concussions and some who had never had a concussion. Using MRI imaging, the thickness of their cerebral cortex was measured in seven regions that are the first to show atrophy in Alzheimer's disease, as well as seven control regions.
"We found that having a concussion was associated with lower cortical thickness in brain regions that are the first to be affected in Alzheimer's disease," explained corresponding author Jasmeet Hayes, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at BUSM and research psychologist at the National Center for PTSD, VA Boston Healthcare System. "Our results suggest that when combined with genetic factors, concussions may be associated with accelerated cortical thickness and memory decline in Alzheimer's disease relevant areas."
Older people who followed a Mediterranean diet retained more brain volume.
MINNEAPOLIS – A new study shows that older people who followed a Mediterranean diet retained more brain volume over a three-year period than those who did not follow the diet as closely. The study is published in the January 4, 2017, online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. But contrary to earlier studies, eating more fish and less meat was not related to changes in the brain. The Mediterranean diet includes large amounts of fruits, vegetables, olive oil, beans and cereal grains such as wheat and rice, moderate amounts of fish, dairy and wine, and limited red meat and poultry. “As we age, the brain shrinks and we lose brain cells which can affect learning and memory,” said study author Michelle Luciano, PhD, of the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. “This study adds to the body of evidence that suggests the Mediterranean diet has a positive impact on brain health.” Researchers gathered information on the eating habits of 967 Scottish people around age 70 who did not have dementia. Of those people, 562 had an MRI brain scan around age 73 to measure overall brain volume, gray matter volume and thickness of the cortex, which is the outer layer of the brain. From that group, 401 people then returned for a second MRI at age 76. These measurements were compared to how closely participants followed the Mediterranean diet. The participants varied in how closely their dietary habits followed the Mediterranean diet principles. People who didn’t follow as closely to the Mediterranean diet were more likely to have a higher loss of total brain volume over the three years than people who followed the diet more closely. The difference in diet explained 0.5 percent of the variation in total brain volume, an effect that was half the size of that due to normal aging. The results were the same when researchers adjusted for other factors that could affect brain volume, such as age, education and having diabetes or high blood pressure. There was no relationship between grey matter volume or cortical thickness and the Mediterranean diet. The researchers also found that fish and meat consumption were not related to brain changes, which is contrary to earlier studies. “It’s possible that other components of the Mediterranean diet are responsible for this relationship, or that it’s due to all of the components in combination,” Luciano said. Luciano noted that earlier studies looked at brain measurements at one point in time, whereas the current study followed people over time. “In our study, eating habits were measured before brain volume was, which suggests that the diet may be able to provide long-term protection to the brain,” said Luciano. “Still, larger studies are needed to confirm these results.” The study was supported by Age UK, the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the UK Medical Research Council and the Scottish Funding Council SINAPSE Collaboration. To learn more about brain health, visit www.aan.com/patients.
The American Academy of Neurology is the world's largest association of neurologists and neuroscience professionals, with 30,000 members. The AAN is dedicated to promoting the highest quality patient-centered neurologic care. A neurologist is a doctor with specialized training in diagnosing, treating and managing disorders of the brain and nervous system such as Alzheimer's disease, stroke, migraine, multiple sclerosis, concussion, Parkinson's disease and epilepsy.
For more information about the American Academy of Neurology, visit AAN.com or find us on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube.
I'm a research-driven Boomer with concerns - like many of my friends - about keeping our minds sharp and leaning-in against the age-related mental impairments that impact our parents - and may impact lots of us in the years ahead.
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