When a Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words

July 7, 2009

July 7, 2009

Can using pictures aid memory recall in people with Alzheimer’s disease? It’s possible it may, according to researchers from Boston University School of Medicine, who found that pictures allowed those with mild cognitive impairment, a serious form of memory loss that sometimes precedes Alzheimer’s, to better recognize and identify a subject as compared to using just words.

The reason using pictures may help, the researchers found, was that those with memory defects retained a general sense of familiarity with various subjects, even though they couldn’t find the words to recall or recognize them. The findings appeared in the current issue of the medical journal Neuropsychologia.

In the study, the researchers studied people with a form of mild cognitive impairment known as amnestic MCI, which is marked by memory problems. Those with this form of MCI have a ten-fold increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s compared to their healthy peers.

Patients with amnestic MCI and healthy controls were given brain scans while undergoing memory tests to recall various words and while they were looking at pictures. The brain scans showed that frontal areas of the brain associated with recall and identification were activated in both groups of study volunteers. But while men and women with MCI seemed to recognize pictures of objects, they often couldn’t identify those objects in words.

“The results suggested that patients with very mild Alzheimer’s, or amnestic mild cognitive impairment, were able to rely on intact frontally-based cognitive processes, such as implicit conceptual priming and explicit memorial familiarity, to remember pictures,” said study author Brandon Ally, Ph.D., an assistant professor of neurology at the medical school.

According to the researchers, this is a novel finding with regards to how people conceptualize things and that is related  to memory retrieval, particularly in patients with dementia.

“Perhaps patients with mild Alzheimer’s disease can successfully use implicit memory, or memory without conscious awareness, to support recognition,” Dr. Ally said.

“Pictures have a clear memorial advantage over words, but the debate as to why is far from settled,” Dr. Ally added. If that’s the case, it may be possible to develop techniques to enhance memory in patients with Alzheimer’s, the researchers proposed.

For example, it may be possible to use photos of a loved one, for example, rather than mentioning their name. This may prove to be a useful memory aid for someone with Alzheimer’s. The researchers are continuing their work to look into real-word scenarios where such research may prove useful.

By www.ALZinfo.org, The Alzheimer’s Information Site. Reviewed by William J. Netzer, Ph.D., Fisher Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation at The Rockefeller University.

Source: Neuropsychologia, May 2009.


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