1. Using virtual reality to identify brain areas involved in memory

    February 15, 2018 by Ashley

    From the University of California – Davis press release:

    Virtual reality is helping neuroscientists at the University of California, Davis, get new insight into how different brain areas assemble memories in context.

    In a study published Jan. 18 in the journal Nature Communications, graduate student Halle Dimsdale-Zucker and colleagues used a virtual reality environment to train subjects, then showed that different areas of the hippocampus are activated for different types of memories.

    It’s well known that one memory can trigger related memories. We remember specific events with context — when and where it happened, who was there. Different memories can have specific context, as well as information that is the same between memories — for example, events that occurred in the same location.

    Dimsdale-Zucker and Professor Charan Ranganath at the UC Davis Center for Neuroscience and Department of Psychology are interested in how the brain assembles all the pieces of these memories. They use functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to look for brain areas that are activated as memories are recalled, especially in the hippocampus, a small structure in the center of the brain.

    For this study, Dimsdale-Zucker used architectural sketching software to build houses in a 3-D virtual environment. The subjects watched a series of videos in which they went into one house then another. In each video, different objects were positioned within the houses. The subjects therefore memorized the objects in two contexts: which video (episodic memory) and which house (spatial memory).

    In the second phase of the study, the subjects were asked to try to remember the objects while they were scanned by fMRI.

    Being asked about the objects spontaneously reactivated contextual information, Dimsdale-Zucker said. Different regions of the hippocampus were activated for different kinds of information: One area, CA1, was associated with representing shared information about contexts (e.g., objects that were in the same video); another, distinct area was linked to representing differences in context.

    “What’s exciting is that it is intuitive that you can remember a unique experience, but the hippocampus is also involved in linking similar experiences,” Dimsdale-Zucker said. “You need both to be able to remember.”

    Another interesting finding was that in this study, the hippocampus was involved in episodic memories linking both time and space, she said. Conventional thinking has been that the hippocampus codes primarily for spatial memories, for example those involved in navigation.

    Virtual reality makes it possible to carry out controlled laboratory experiments with episodic memory, Dimsdale-Zucker said. A better understanding of how memories are formed, stored and recalled could eventually lead to better diagnosis and treatment for memory problems in aging or degenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.


  2. What are memories made of?

    February 12, 2018 by Ashley

    From the University of Colorado at Boulder press release:

    Ask a nonscientist what memories are made of and you’ll likely conjure images of childhood birthday parties or wedding days. Charles Hoeffer thinks about proteins.

    For five years, the assistant professor of integrative physiology at CU Boulder has been working to better understand a protein called AKT, which is ubiquitous in brain tissue and instrumental in enabling the brain to adapt to new experiences and lay down new memories.

    Until now, scientists have known very little about what it does in the brain.

    But in a new paper funded by the National Institutes of Health, Hoeffer and his co-authors spell it out for the first time, showing that AKT comes in three distinct varieties residing in different kinds of brain cells and affecting brain health in very distinct ways.

    The discovery could lead to new, more targeted treatments for everything from glioblastoma — the brain cancer Sen. John McCain has — to Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia.

    “AKT is a central protein that has been implicated in a bevy of neurological diseases yet we know amazingly little about it,” Hoeffer said. “Our paper is the first to comprehensively examine what its different forms are doing in the brain and where.”

    Discovered in the 1970s and known best as an “oncogene” (one that, when mutated, can promote cancer), AKT has more recently been identified as a key player in promoting “synaptic plasticity,” the brain’s ability to strengthen cellular connections in response to experience.

    “Let’s say you see a great white shark and you are scared and your brain wants to form a memory of what’s going on. You have to make new proteins to encode that memory,” he said. AKT is one of the first proteins to come online, a central switch that turns on the memory factory.

    But not all AKTs are created equal.

    For the study, Hoeffer’s team silenced the three different isoforms, or varieties, of AKT in mice and observed their brain activity.

    They made a number of key discoveries:

    AKT2 is found exclusively in astroglia, the supportive, star-shaped cells in the brain and spinal cord that are often impacted in brain cancer and brain injury.

    “That is a really important finding,” said co-author Josien Levenga, who worked on the project as a postdoctoral researcher at CU Boulder. “If you could develop a drug that targeted only AKT2 without impacting other forms, it might be more effective in treating certain issues with fewer side-effects.”

    The researchers also found that AKT1 is ubiquitous in neurons and appears to be the most important form in promoting the strengthening of synapses in response to experience, aka memory formation. (This finding is in line with previous research showing that mutations in AKT1 boost risk of schizophrenia and other brain disorders associated with a flaw in the way a patient perceives or remembers experiences.)

    AKT3 appears to play a key role in brain growth, with mice whose AKT3 gene is silenced showing smaller brain size.

    “Before this, there was an assumption that they all did basically the same thing in the same cells in the same way. Now we know better,” Hoeffer said.

    He notes that pan-AKT inhibitors have already been developed for cancer treatment, but he envisions a day when drugs could be developed to target more specific versions of the protein (AKT1 enhancers for Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia, AKT2 inhibitors for cancer), leaving the others forms untouched, preventing side-effects.

    More animal research is underway to determine what happens to behavior when different forms of the protein go awry.

    “Isoform specific treatments hold great promise for the design of targeted therapies to treat neurological diseases with much greater efficacy and accuracy than those utilizing a one-size-fits-all approach,” the authors conclude. “This study is an important step in that direction.”


  3. Distinct brain rhythms, regions help us reason about categories

    February 10, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Picower Institute at MIT press release:

    We categorize pretty much everything we see, and remarkably, we often achieve that feat whether the items look patently similar — like Fuji and McIntosh apples — or they share a more abstract similarity — like a screwdriver and a drill. A new study at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory explains how.

    Categorization is a fundamental cognitive mechanism,” says Earl Miller, Picower Professor in MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. “It’s the way the brain learns to generalize. If your brain didn’t have this ability, you’d be overwhelmed by details of the sensory world. Every time you experienced something, if it was in different lighting or at a different angle, your brain would treat it as a brand new thing.”

    In the new paper in Neuron, Miller’s lab, led by postdoctoral associate Andreas Wutz and graduate student Roman Loonis, shows that the ability to categorize based on straightforward resemblance or on abstract similarity arises from the brain’s use of distinct rhythms, at distinct times, in distinct parts of the prefrontal cortex (PFC). Specifically when animals needed to match images that bore close resemblance, an increase in the power of high-frequency gamma rhythms in the ventral lateral PFC did the trick. When they had to match images based on a more abstract similarity, that depended on a later surge of lower frequency beta rhythms in the dorsal lateral PFC.

    Miller says those findings suggest a model of how the brain achieves category abstractions. It shows that meeting the challenge of abstraction is not merely a matter of thinking the same way but harder. Instead, a different mechanism in a different part of the brain takes over when simple, sensory comparison is not enough for us to judge whether two things belong to the same category.

    By precisely describing the frequencies, locations and the timing of rhythms that govern categorization, the findings, if replicated in humans, could prove helpful in research to understand an aspect of some autism spectrum disorders, Miller says. In ASD categorization can be challenging for patients, especially when objects or faces appear atypical. Potentially, clinicians could measure rhythms to determine whether patients who struggle to recognize abstract similarities are employing the mechanisms differently.

    Connecting the dots

    To conduct the study, Wutz, Loonis, Miller and co-authors measured brain rhythms in key areas of the PFC associated with categorization as animals played some on-screen games. In each round, animals would see a pattern of dots — a sample from one of two different categories of configurations. Then the sample would disappear and after a delay, two choices of dot designs would appear. The subject’s task was to fix its gaze on whichever one belonged to the same category as the sample. Sometimes the right answer was evident by sheer visual resemblance, but sometimes the similarity was based on a more abstract criterion the animal could infer over successive trials. The experimenters precisely quantified the degree of abstraction based on geometric calculations of the distortion of the dot pattern compared to a category archetype.

    “This study was very well defined” Wutz says. “It provided a mathematically correct way to distinguish something so vague as abstraction. It’s a judgement call very often, but not with the paradigm that we used.”

    Gamma in the ventral PFC always peaked in power when the sample appeared, as if the animals were making a “does this sample look like category A or not?” assessment as soon as they were shown it. Beta power in the dorsal PFC peaked during the subsequent delay period when abstraction was required, as if the animals realized that there wasn’t enough visual resemblance and deeper thought would be necessary to make the upcoming choice.

    Notably, the data was rich enough to reveal several nuances about what was going on. Category information and rhythm power were so closely associated, for example, that the researchers measured greater rhythm power in advance of correct category judgements than in advance of incorrect ones. They also found that the role of beta power was not based on the difficulty of choosing a category (i.e. how similar the choices were) but specifically on whether the correct answer had a more abstract or literal similarity to the sample.

    By analyzing the rhythm measurements, the researchers could even determine how the animals were approaching the categorization task. They weren’t judging whether a sample belonged to one category or the other, Wutz says. Instead they were judging whether they belonged to a preferred category or not.

    “That preference was reflected in the brain rhythms,” Wutz says. “We saw the strongest effects for each animal’s preferred category.”

    The National institute of Mental Health funded the study, which was co-authored by graduate student Jacob Donoghue and research scientist Jefferson Roy.


  4. Study suggests positive attitude toward math predicts math achievement in kids

    February 9, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Stanford University Medical Center press release:

    For the first time, scientists have identified the brain pathway that links a positive attitude toward math to achievement in the subject.

    In a study of elementary school students, researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine found that having a positive attitude about math was connected to better function of the hippocampus, an important memory center in the brain, during performance of arithmetic problems.

    The findings will be published online Jan. 24 in Psychological Science.

    Educators have long observed higher math scores in children who show more interest in math and perceive themselves as being better at it. But it has not been clear if this attitude simply reflects other capacities, such as higher intelligence.

    The new study found that, even once IQ and other confounding factors were accounted for, a positive attitude toward math still predicted which students had stronger math performance.

    ‘Attitude is really important’

    “Attitude is really important,” said Lang Chen, PhD, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral scholar in psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “Based on our data, the unique contribution of positive attitude to math achievement is as large as the contribution from IQ.”

    The scientists had not expected the contribution of attitude to be so large, Chen said. The mechanism underlying its link to cognitive performance was also unexpected.

    “It was really surprising to see that the link works through a very classical learning and memory system in the brain,” said the study’s senior author, Vinod Menon, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. Researchers had previously hypothesized that the brain’s reward centers might drive the link between attitude and achievement — perhaps children with better attitudes were better at math because they found it more rewarding or motivating. “Instead, we saw that if you have a strong interest and self-perceived ability in math, it results in enhanced memory and more efficient engagement of the brain’s problem-solving capacities,” Menon said.

    The researchers administered standard questionnaires to 240 children ages 7 to 10, assessing demographics, IQ, reading ability and working-memory capacity. The children’s level of math achievement was measured with tests of their knowledge of arithmetic facts and ability to solve math word problems. Parents or guardians answered surveys about the children’s behavioral and emotional characteristics, as well as their anxiety about math and general anxiety. Children also answered a survey that assessed their attitude toward math, including questions about interest in math and self-perceived math ability, as well as their attitude toward academics in general.

    Forty-seven children from the group also participated in MRI brain scans while performing arithmetic problems. Tests were conducted outside the MRI scanner to discern which problem-solving strategies they used. An independent group of 28 children also was given MRI scans and other assessments in an attempt to replicate the findings from the cohort previously given brain scans.

    Opening the door

    Math performance correlated with a positive attitude toward math even after statistically controlling for IQ, working memory, math anxiety, general anxiety and general attitude toward academics, the study found. Children with poor attitudes toward math rarely performed well in the subject, while those with strongly positive attitudes had a range of math achievement.

    A positive attitude opens the door for children to do well but does not guarantee that they will; that depends on other factors as well,” Chen said.

    From the brain-imaging results, the scientists found that, when a child was solving a math problem, his or her positive-attitude scores correlated with activation in the hippocampus, an important memory and learning center in the brain. Activity in the brain’s reward centers, including the amygdala and the ventral striatum, was not linked to a positive attitude toward math. Statistical modeling of the brain imaging results suggested that the hippocampus mediates the link between positive attitude and efficient retrieval of facts from memory, which in turn is associated with better problem solving abilities.

    Having a positive attitude acts directly on your memory and learning system,” Chen said. “I think that’s really important and interesting.”

    The study could not disentangle the extent to which a positive attitude came from a child’s prior success in math. “We think the relationship between positive attitude and math achievement is mutual, bi-directional,” Chen said. “We think it’s like bootstrapping: A good attitude opens the door to high achievement, which means you then have a better attitude, getting you into a good circle of learning. And it can probably go the other way and be a vicious circle, too.”

    The findings may provide a new avenue for improving academic performance and learning in children who are struggling, Menon said, cautioning that this idea still needs to be tested through active interventions.

    “Typically, we focus on skill learning in individual academic domains, but our new work suggests that looking at children’s beliefs about a subject and their self-perceived abilities might provide another inroad to maximizing learning,” Menon said. The findings also offer a potential explanation for how a particularly passionate teacher can nurture students’ interest and learning capacities for a subject, he added. Inspiring teachers may be instinctively sharing their own interest, as well as instilling students in the belief that they can be good at the subject, building a positive attitude even if the student did not have it before.


  5. Study suggests painting a realistic picture of difficulties of weight loss may actually be helpful

    by Ashley

    From the Drexel University press release:

    To reach your New Year’s fitness goals, a bit of reverse psychology might be in order. Telling people that weight loss is extremely challenging — rather than imparting a “You can do it!” mantra — motivated them to shed more weight, according to a new study by psychologists at Drexel University. However, the strategy did not compel participants to achieve the goal for which it was originally designed: to modify or replace many of the unhealthy foods in their homes.

    The study’s findings, published this week in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, have conflicting implications, says Michael Lowe, PhD, a professor at Drexel’s College of Arts and Sciences.

    “On one hand, giving overweight people a realistic sense of the dilemma that they are in and the powerful forces they are up against — including a genetic predisposition toward obesity and an increased susceptibility to many food cues in the environment — may actually promote cognitive restraint over their eating in the short-term,” Lowe said. “But, on the other hand, this message did not motivate participants to make numerous changes to the foods they surround themselves with.”

    Lowe and a team of researchers originally set out to determine the effectiveness of three weight loss interventions: behavior therapy, behavior therapy plus meal replacements, or a condition focused on getting people to change foods in their home food environments. They enrolled 262 overweight and obese individuals and assigned them to one of the three methods, while tracking their weight over a three-year period.

    Behavior therapy — the current “gold standard” in weight loss treatment — involves group support, regular weigh-ins, exercise, explicit goal setting and monitoring food intake, while meal replacement treatment replaces breakfast and lunch with calorie-controlled shakes or nutrition bars.

    Behavior therapy is aimed at bolstering someone’s internal sense of self-regulation over food intake and exercise. But research has shown that increases in self-control are not sustainable, and lost weight is almost always regained. The powerful lure of foods high in fat, sugar and salt has been well-documented, and existing treatments do not do enough to ensure that foods kept in the home are permanently changed in ways that make self-control more feasible, according to Lowe.

    “You can’t just give advice,” he said. “You have to work with people to eliminate and substitute very specific foods, and teach them to prepare food differently.”

    That’s why his research team hypothesized that modifying the home food environment (or HFE) would be the most effective strategy for losing and maintaining weight loss. Participants in this group were given homework assignments to identify and make numerous changes to specific foods that were still satisfying but less calorically damaging.

    “Asking people to make healthy decisions, when there are thousands of food choices available, is both emotionally challenging and also complicated,” Lowe said. “HFE treatment is really about mechanically trying to ensure that these changes are made, so the level of chronic temptation generated by foods in their homes is reduced.”

    Most importantly, the research team repeatedly reminded the HFE group about the challenges associated with weight loss and maintenance. In doing this, the researchers aimed to acknowledge the participants’ vulnerability to overconsume favorite foods.

    “We said, ‘It’s impressive and encouraging that you are taking this step to improve your weight and health, but we need to help you understand the daunting challenges you’re facing.’ The reason we did this was not to discourage them, but to give them a more realistic sense of how crucial it is for them to make lasting changes in their parts of the food environment that they could control,” Lowe said.

    People struggling with their weight are likely to hold themselves responsible, even though a number of internal (heredity, for example) and external (fast food restaurants) forces are at play and beyond their control, Lowe said. The researchers suggested that by making multiple changes to their food environment, participants would be reducing the need to perpetually exercise self-control to maintain the weight they lost.

    In addition to measuring the participants’ weights during six assessment sessions over three years, the researchers also assessed conditions such as binge eating, quality of life, cognitive restraint and food cravings by using questionnaires and statistical analysis.

    At the end of the three-year study period, the researchers found that those in the HFE group lost more weight than those in the behavior therapy group. However, the differential in weight loss was modest, and all participants showed the familiar trend toward weight regain.

    “We failed to get them to translate our warnings into the kind of actions we were trying to get them to take,” Lowe said.

    The warnings did, however, have a positive — though unanticipated — effect. Cognitive restraint — defined by a participant’s ability to actively make healthy choices and measured with mediation analysis — showed the longest, most prolonged increase in the HFE participants, when compared to the other two treatment groups.

    This suggests that the researchers’ rhetoric about the difficulties of sustaining weight loss may have actually caused the participants in the HFE group to “push back” against this message and increase their vigilance over their eating, Lowe said.

    “That is, by questioning the usefulness of building self-control skills, the HFE treatment may have bolstered the very capacity it was meant to downplay — stronger self-control with regard to food,” the study authors write.

    Though surprising, these results have potentially clinically-useful implications. By emphasizing the many factors that make lasting weight loss so difficult, it may help motivate individuals to mentally and behaviorally cope with these factors, according to Lowe.

    “Rather than acting as cheerleaders giving facile encouragement, leaders of weight loss groups might serve their clients better by providing a more sobering description of the challenges participants face,” Lowe explained.

    However, since the participants in the HFE condition did not make greater changes to their home food environment, future studies should examine how to better improve and monitor this weight loss intervention, such as sending dieticians or other practitioners directly to clients’ homes for periodic visits.

    For Lowe, the study reinforces the challenging reality for those seeking to maintain weight loss — and makes a strong case for policies (such as Philadelphia’s beverage tax) that focus on preventing, rather than treating, the problem of obesity in the United States.

    “Once these conditions develop and you are continuing to live in the same obesogenic environment, it is unrealistic to expect that many people will be able to sustain a large weight loss,” he said. “Society ultimately needs to prevent these unhealthy weight gains before they occur.”


  6. Study suggests cognitive training helps regain a younger-working brain

    February 8, 2018 by Ashley

    From the Center for BrainHealth press release:

    Relentless cognitive decline as we age is worrisome, and it is widely thought to be an unavoidable negative aspect of normal aging. Researchers at the Center for BrainHealth at The University of Texas at Dallas, however, say their research could provide new hope for extending our brain function as we age.

    In a randomized clinical study involving adults age 56 to 71 that recently published in Neurobiology of Aging, researchers found that after cognitive training, participants’ brains were more energy efficient, meaning their brain did not have to work as hard to perform a task.

    Dr. Michael Motes, senior research scientist at the Center for BrainHealth and one of the lead authors of the study, said, “Finding a nonpharmacological intervention that can help the aging brain to perform like a younger brain is a welcome finding that potentially advances understanding of ways to enhance brain health and longevity. It is thrilling for me as a cognitive neuroscientist, who has previously studied age-related cognitive decline, to find that cognitive training has the potential to strengthen the aging brain to function more like a younger brain.”

    To investigate changes in brain efficiency, the research team studied neural activity while the participant performed a task. For the study, 57 cognitively normal older adults were randomly assigned to a cognitive training group, a wait-listed control group, or physical exercise control group. The cognitive training utilized the Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART) program developed at the Center for BrainHealth.

    Cognitive training strategies included how to focus on the most relevant information and filter out the less relevant; ways to continually synthesize information encountered in daily life to encourage deeper thinking; and how to inspire innovative thinking through generating diverse interpretations, solutions and perspectives. Because aerobic exercise has been shown to lead to improvements in processing speed and functional changes within the frontal and other brain regions, it was included as one of the study groups.

    The cognitive training was conducted over the course of 12 weeks. Participants in the active control physical exercise program exceeded physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes per week for the 12 weeks.

    Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), an imaging technique that measures brain activity, researchers examined all three groups at the beginning (baseline), middle, and end of the study while participants performed computer-based speed tasks in the scanner.

    The fMRI results provided evidence that cognitive training improved speed-related neural activity. While all groups showed faster reaction times across sessions, the cognitive training group showed a significant increase in the association between reaction time and frontal lobe activity. After training, faster reaction times were associated with lower frontal lobe activity, which is consistent with the more energy-efficient neural activity found in younger adults.

    In contrast to the cognitive training group, the wait-listed and physical exercise groups showed significant decreases across sessions in the association between reaction time and frontal lobe activation.

    “This discovery of neural efficiency profiles found in the SMART-trained older adults is promising,” said Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, one of the lead authors, Center for BrainHealth founder and chief director. “If replicated, this work paves the way for larger clinical trials to test the ability to harness the potential of the aging mind and its ability to excel — by working like a younger brain with all the rich knowledge and expertise accrued over time. To counteract the pattern of age-related losses and even enhance the brain’s inner workings by ‘thinking’ in smarter ways is an achievable and highly desirable goal.”


  7. Study looks at personality changes during transition to developing mild cognitive impairment

    February 7, 2018 by Ashley

    From the American Geriatrics Society press release:

    A key feature of Alzheimer’s disease is memory loss and losing one’s ability to think and make decisions (also called “cognitive ability“). Those changes can begin slowly, during a phase called “mild cognitive impairment” (or MCI). A variety of diseases can cause MCI, but the most common is Alzheimer’s disease.

    Not all people who have MCI develop Alzheimer’s disease — but if memory loss is a person’s key MCI symptom, and if that person’s genes (DNA) suggests they may be likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease, the risk for the condition can be as high as 90 percent.

    Personality changes and behavior problems that come with Alzheimer’s disease are as troubling as memory loss and other mental difficulties for caregivers and those living with the condition. Mayo Clinic researchers wondered if personality changes that begin early, when MCI memory loss becomes noticeable, might help predict Alzheimer’s disease at its earliest stages. The researchers created a study to test their theory and published their findings in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

    Researchers recruited cognitively normal participants 21-years-old and older who were genetically more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. The recruitment period began in January 1994 and ended in December 2016. Researchers also recruited people without a genetic likelihood for developing Alzheimer’s disease to serve as a control group. All participants took several tests, including medical and neurological (or brain) exams. They were also screened for depression, as well as cognitive and physical function.

    After analyzing results, the researchers concluded that personality changes, which can lead to changes in behavior, occur early on during the development of Alzheimer’s disease. The behavioral changes, however, may be barely noticeable, and can include mood swings, depression, and anxiety. They suggested that further research might be needed to learn whether diagnosing these early personality changes could help experts develop earlier, safer, and more effective treatments — or even prevention options — for the more severe types of behavior challenges that affect people with Alzheimer’s disease.


  8. Study suggests curcumin improves memory and mood

    February 3, 2018 by Ashley

    From the UCLA press release:

    Lovers of Indian food, give yourselves a second helping: Daily consumption of a certain form of curcumin — the substance that gives Indian curry its bright color — improved memory and mood in people with mild, age-related memory loss, according to the results of a study conducted by UCLA researchers.

    The research, published online Jan. 19 in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, examined the effects of an easily absorbed curcumin supplement on memory performance in people without dementia, as well as curcumin’s potential impact on the microscopic plaques and tangles in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease.

    Found in turmeric, curcumin has previously been shown to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties in lab studies. It also has been suggested as a possible reason that senior citizens in India, where curcumin is a dietary staple, have a lower prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease and better cognitive performance.

    “Exactly how curcumin exerts its effects is not certain, but it may be due to its ability to reduce brain inflammation, which has been linked to both Alzheimer’s disease and major depression,” said Dr. Gary Small, director of geriatric psychiatry at UCLA’s Longevity Center and of the geriatric psychiatry division at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, and the study’s first author.

    The double-blind, placebo-controlled study involved 40 adults between the ages of 50 and 90 years who had mild memory complaints. Participants were randomly assigned to receive either a placebo or 90 milligrams of curcumin twice daily for 18 months.

    All 40 subjects received standardized cognitive assessments at the start of the study and at six-month intervals, and monitoring of curcumin levels in their blood at the start of the study and after 18 months. Thirty of the volunteers underwent positron emission tomography, or PET scans, to determine the levels of amyloid and tau in their brains at the start of the study and after 18 months.

    The people who took curcumin experienced significant improvements in their memory and attention abilities, while the subjects who received placebo did not, Small said. In memory tests, the people taking curcumin improved by 28 percent over the 18 months. Those taking curcumin also had mild improvements in mood, and their brain PET scans showed significantly less amyloid and tau signals in the amygdala and hypothalamus than those who took placebos.

    The amygdala and hypothalamus are regions of the brain that control several memory and emotional functions.

    Four people taking curcumin, and two taking placebos, experienced mild side effects such as abdominal pain and nausea.

    The researchers plan to conduct a follow-up study with a larger number of people. That study will include some people with mild depression so the scientists can explore whether curcumin also has antidepressant effects. The larger sample also would allow them to analyze whether curcumin’s memory-enhancing effects vary according to people’s genetic risk for Alzheimer’s, their age or the extent of their cognitive problems.

    “These results suggest that taking this relatively safe form of curcumin could provide meaningful cognitive benefits over the years,” said Small, UCLA’s Parlow-Solomon Professor on Aging.


  9. Can training improve memory, thinking abilities in older adults with cognitive impairment?

    January 23, 2018 by Ashley

    From the American Geriatrics Society press release:

    Cognition is the ability to think and make decisions. Medication-free treatments that maintain cognitive health as we age are attracting the attention of medical experts. Maintaining the ability to think clearly and make decisions is crucial to older adults’ well-being and vitality.

    Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a condition that affects people who are in the early stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. People with MCI may have mild memory loss or other difficulties completing tasks that involve cognitive abilities. MCI may eventually develop into dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. Depression and anxiety also can accompany MCI. Having these conditions can increase the risk of mental decline as people age.

    A new, first-of-its-kind study was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society by scientists from research centers in Montreal and Quebec City, Canada. They designed a study to learn whether cognitive training, a medication-free treatment, could improve MCI. Studies show that activities that stimulate your brain, such as cognitive training, can protect against a decline in your mental abilities. Even older adults who have MCI can still learn and use new mental skills.

    For their study, researchers recruited 145 older adults around the age of 72 from Canadian memory clinics. The participants had been diagnosed with MCI, and were assigned to one of three groups. Each group included four or five participants, and met for eight weekly sessions for 120 minutes.

    The three groups were:

    • Cognitive training group. Members of this group participated in the MEMO program (MEMO stands for a French phrase that translates to “training method for optimal memory”). They received special training to improve their memory and attention span.
    • Psycho-social group. Participants in this group were encouraged to improve their general well-being. They learned to focus on the positive aspects of their lives and find ways to increase positive situations.
    • Control group. Participants had no contact with researchers and didn’t follow a program.

    During the time the training sessions took place, 128 of the participants completed the project. After six months, 104 completed all the sessions they were assigned.

    People in the MEMO group increased their memory scores by 35 to 40 percent, said Sylvie Belleville, PhD, a senior author of the study. “Most importantly, they maintained their scores over a six-month period.”

    What’s more, the improvement was the largest for older adults with “delayed recall.” This means memory for words measured just 10 minutes after people have studied them. Because delayed memory is one of the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s disease, this was a key finding.

    Those who participated in the MEMO group said they used the training they learned in their daily lives. The training gave them different ways to remember things. For example, they learned to use visual images to remember names of new people, and to use associations to remember shopping lists. These lessons allowed them to continue maintaining their memory improvements after the study ended.

    The people in the psycho-social group and the control group didn’t experience memory benefits or improvement in their mood.


  10. Study suggests neurons’ sugar coating essential for long-term memories

    January 19, 2018 by Ashley

    From the University of Oslo, Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences press release:

    How the brain is able to store memories over long periods of time has been a persistent mystery to neuroscientists. In a new study, researchers from the Centre for Integrative Neuroplasticity (CINPLA) at the University of Oslo show that long-lived extracellular matrix molecules called perineuronal nets are essential for distant memories.

    The new research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that removal of the nets disrupts distant but not recent memories.

    Previously, researchers have mainly focused on molecules inside the nerve cells. The team of investigators, led by Drs. Marianne Fyhn and Torkel Hafting, studied perineuronal nets that tightly cover the outside of neurons. The nets are made up of sugar-coated proteins, forming a rigid structure that contains holes where connections to other neurons are kept in place.

    When new memories are formed, the connections between neurons change. The authors hypothesized that perineuronal nets might stabilize the new, memory-related connections to support long-term memories. To test memory function, the team performed a classical conditioning experiment, where rats learn to associate a light blink with an unpleasant event. This type of learning creates a robust and long-lasting memory.

    A surprisingly strong effect

    After learning, the rats were divided into two groups, one where the perineuronal nets were left intact and one where they were removed in a small area of the cortex, termed secondary visual cortex, an area known to be involved in memory storage. When the rats were asked to recall the memory a month later, the results were astonishing — the group without the nets did not remember anything. The experiments show that perineuronal nets are essential for long-term memories, because without them, the memory is lost.

    “We were quite surprised by how strong the effect was in those first experiments, since we only manipulated molecules outside the neurons and not inside” says Elise H. Thompson, one of the leading authors of the paper.

    “While we expected to see some effect of the intervention, previous studies on the nets had focused on their role in development and learning, not memory storage. It was very exciting to see that the memory was in fact gone,” Thompson adds.

    In a follow-up experiment where the memory was tested only a few days after learning, the team found that the memory was intact, and that the disappearing effect was specific to old memories. “Because the net is a very stable structure it may stabilize memories as they age, but when a memory is new, it survives without extra stabilizing factors” says Dr. Kristian K. Lensjø, another leading author of the paper.

    Potential for novel drug targets

    While scientists understanding of the processes that govern the transition from short-term to long-term memory has expanded greatly in recent years, those needed for a memory to persist across years remain unresolved. This research is an important step toward understanding what components are needed to store memories for a lifetime.

    “If we can increase our understanding of how memories are processed over months and years in the healthy brain, we can start to untangle what goes wrong when they are eventually lost in detrimental diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia. The surprising finding that extracellular molecules are involved in these processes also suggests potential novel drug targets,” explains Marianne Fyhn, leader of the CINPLA project.