The Memories of Alzheimer’s Patients May Not Be Gone Forever

An Alzheimer’s diagnosis can be devastating for everyone involved — friends, family, co-workers, and, of course, the patient. Knowing a disease is going to slowly steal someone’s identity is frightening — but new research has found that one’s memories may not be lost for good.

Is there hope to retrieve memories that were once lost?

Could Lost Memories Potentially Be Recovered?

Each and every week, new Alzheimer’s research piles up, helping us inch closer to a solution.

This week, a study published in Hippocampus, is shedding light on one of the most devastating symptoms of this disease — memory loss. For those who have witnessed their loved one deteriorate, you know how challenging this effect can be in terms of your relationship.

I think for many, that’s the hardest part. Their mom, dad, or brother is still physically present, yet their mind is elsewhere. At this point, it can be easy to give up, feeling as though your loved one is gone for good; but what if this isn’t the case?

As discovered by the researchers at Columbia University, the memories of mice with Alzheimer’s disease were recovered through the use of light. Meaning, it appears that Alzheimer’s may not destroy memories, but instead, disrupt memory recall mechanisms.

Basically, instead of memories being lost for good, Alzheimer’s patients may not be able to retrieve them. In this case, mice were shown to recover these lost memories in a very interesting and unique study.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • Healthy mice were given a disease that is similar to human Alzheimer’s, causing the subjects to experience significant memory loss. The brains of these mice were engineered to glow yellow during memory storage and red when undergoing memory recall.
  • To associate a memory, mice were exposed to the smell of lemon, followed by an electric shock. This would, of course, reinforce this connection.
  • One week later, when the mice were exposed to the smell of lemon once again, there was a clear difference between the healthy and diseased mice. Those who were healthy, showed an overlap between red and yellow glows. This means that they were accessing the right memories, resulting in fear. In comparison, the mice with ‘Alzheimer’s brains’ were indifferent, with their brain glowing in different areas. Meaning, they were recalling information from the wrong areas of the brain.
  • When the team of researchers used a fiber optic cable, shining blue light into the experimental mice’s brains, they were able to reactivate the associated memory. These mice were then able to make a connection between the scent and an electric shock once again — freezing when they smelt lemon.

Based on these findings, there is potential to develop a drug that helps patients regain memories. Of course, there are still uncertainties. One key question we need to ask ourselves is whether or not the Alzheimer’s-like disease that the mice were exposed to, is similar enough to the human variant.

Our brains are far more complex, resulting in the loss of more neurons than mice. In that sense, it may be difficult to target specific memories. Also, optogenetics is a highly invasive technology — but nonetheless, this development is an exciting and promising avenue.

Finding ‘Lost’ Memories

Although this new study is unique in many ways, it’s not the first time this effect has been reported. In 2016, for instance, a key MIT study hit the headlines when neuroscientists retrieved lost memories in mice. Published in Nature, optogenetics (the use of light to control cells) was also the key technique used.

In this case, researchers were able to create a proof of concept. Although mice were studied, it became clear that even if a memory appears to be gone, it’s still there. You can read all about this study and the history of MIT’s research here.

We’re still in the early stages in terms of memory retrieval, especially in humans, but what this research shows, is that there’s a potential access issue — memories are likely not ‘lost’ forever.

I think this is not only important in terms of future research, but also for family members and caregivers. In more ways than one, a person with Alzheimer’s disease is still present. If we are able to create a non-invasive brain stimulation therapy that recreated the results found within the animal model, it would change everything.

At the very least, we now believe that memory loss in Alzheimer’s is not due to the brain’s inability to code new information. Instead, the problem lies in the memory retrieval process — and that is a step in the right direction.

Of course, now the question remains: does the long-term maintenance of memory storage decline as the disease progresses?

Although we do not yet know the answer to this question, as with any disease, early intervention is critical.

The Importance of Early Intervention

There isn’t a cure for Alzheimer’s at this moment in time, but that doesn’t mean that intervention and treatment options are available. The core issue is, patients are not often diagnosed in a timely manner. This not only reduces the effectiveness of available treatment options, but also impacts the cost-effectiveness of these treatments.

Considering approximately one-third of all Alzheimer’s cases may be preventable due to modifiable risk factors, it’s important to understand your risk. If you already have a family history of Alzheimer’s, focus on factors such as midlife obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and smoking.

After all, it’s believed that Alzheimer’s begins to develop 20 to 30 years before the first symptoms surface. That is why education is such a powerful tool. When you better understand what may cause Alzheimer’s, you can take steps to reduce your risk decades in advance.

If you believe that you’re already experiencing signs of cognitive impairment, BrainTest is an ideal assessment tool. The scientifically-validated app can detect potential warning signs, so that you and your doctor can address your current brain health.

Access the science behind BrainTest here — and understand the most powerful risk factors to protect yourself. Taking proactive action today, could mean a world of difference one, five, or even thirty years down the road.

Krista Hillis has a B.A.Sc degree, specializing in neuroscience and psychology. She is actively involved in the mental health and caregiving community, aiming to help others. Krista is also passionate about nutrition and the ways in which lifestyle choices affect and influence the human brain.

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