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23 July 2008

Alzheimer's and memory: study sheds new light on how much we remember

How much can people with dementia actually remember? That question is thrown into new light by research led by the University of Dundee which shows that knowledge may not be destroyed until later stages of conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease than previously thought.

The Dundee researchers, together with colleagues at the Universities of Abertay and St Andrews, found that people with Alzheimer's often know much more than they appear to at first sight.

"We asked patients to define simple words, for example `monkey’, `salmon’ or `tractor’" explained lead researcher Professor Trevor Harley, Dean of the School of Psychology at Dundee."

"People with dementia are notoriously bad at this sort of task: at first sight it looks like they’ve lost most of the detailed knowledge of the word. For example, the only thing they appear to know about a monkey might just be that it's an animal."

"The assumption has been that Alzheimer's disease causes this knowledge to be destroyed. However, we found that if you probe the patient in the right way with appropriate questions that support them to search their stored knowledge, they can often generate more detailed information."

"That is, the knowledge isn't always lost at all. Of course eventually the information might be completely lost, but this might happen much later than people have previously thought."

The researchers say their results show that rather than not having retained the actual knowledge, poor performance on such tasks may be due to them struggling to really understand what's being asked of them.

"The implications of this research are significant," said Professor Harley. "Quite often when people with dementia seem unable to remember something, they might still know it, and you might be able to help them remember it if you phrase the questions in the right way - the more precise the wording of the question is the better.

"You also have to make sure the person really understands what’s being asked of them. It may be prudent to try accessing that information through different tasks, or different approaches, to see if that knowledge has been retained."

The Dundee study involved seven people with Alzheimer’s Disease, and seven healthy older adults. They were asked to provide definitions of 32 common words.

The research is published in the current issue of the journal Aphasiology.

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