In the long list of feared and dreaded diseases that haunts our 4am imaginations, Alzheimer’s has a special place of its own. It is not just the prospect of slow, inevitable decline that scares us, but the loss of our memories. Because our memories are us. In the extreme cases of amnesia and Alzheimer’s, we see what we would become without them: lost, unconnected, unable to make sense of our world or our place in it.
In Jonathan Miller’s powerful documentary about the musician Clive Wearing, “Prisoner of Consciousness”, he showed just how desolate it is to live, literally, in the moment. Wearing had a bout of encephalitis and sustained damage to his brain that dramatically affected his memory. Most of his memories have vanished. His short-term memory has been devastated– he cannot remember things that happened just moments before. Each day, he is convinced that he has just regained consciousness, and lives in a tragic, true-life version of Groundhog Day. He can’t even go out without getting lost.
Wearing is a rare and extreme example, but his story illustrates the profound importance of memory to our everyday lives. Memory is how we learn and how we communicate with the world. It is also a facility that peaks in the young and begins to decline as we age.
Alan Baddeley, author of “Essentials Of Human Memory,” published by Psychology Press, believes we are at a critical stage in our study of memory. “Better treatments for Alzheimer’s, and for the memory “flashbacks” of Post-Traumatic Stress sufferers are two areas where I expect real breakthroughs in the next few years.” The old debate about how much memory is controlled by ‘brain’ and how much by “mind” is, he says, becoming redundant. “They are both crucial, and new research increasingly recognises that.” It is psychology, for example, that explains why we may often have good memories for certain things, like phone numbers, and poor memories for others, such as locations. “Memory is very affected by motivation and attention,” says Baddeley. “Very simply, we remember best what we’re most interested in. Also, we tend to remember things in different ways. A verbally orientated person may remember conversations well, while a visually orientated person may remember faces.” This also explains why two people having the same experience will have very different memories afterwards.
But two of the most exciting new research studies into human memory belong in the field of biochemistry. In the first, scientists at Princeton genetically engineered a strain of mice with enhanced learning and memory abilities, increasing the brain protein NR2B, which they identified as a key to brain function. Their findings open the door to the possibility of one day producing the same effect in humans. This could lead to NR2B being used in new drug treatments for disorders such as Alzheimer’s.
The second study ….
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Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd