Latest Research News

Metamemory (understanding your own memory capabilities) is important for learning. Now a study involving 28 alcoholics has found that, compared to controls, they not only performed more poorly on a test of episodic memory, but they were less accurate in their assessments of how good their memory was. The episodic memory task involved learning 20 pairs of items, followed by a recall and a recognition test 20 minutes later. Before the recognition test, participants rated their ability to recognize each nonrecalled word among 4 items.

There’s been a lot of discussion, backed by some evidence, that groups are ‘smarter’ than the individuals in them, that groups make better decisions than individuals. But it is not, of course, as simple as that, and a recent study speaks to the limits of this principle. The study involved pairs of volunteers who were asked to detect a very weak signal that was shown on a computer screen. If they disagreed about when the signal occurred, then they talked together until they agreed on a joint decision.

A number of studies have found evidence that fruits and vegetables help fight age-related cognitive decline, and this has been thought to be due to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. A new study shows there may be an additional reason why polyphenols benefit the aging brain.

A number of studies in recent years have revealed the amazing ability of the human brain to compensate for damage down to its part. In the latest of these, it’s been found that loss of the

A small study comparing 18 obese adolescents with type 2 diabetes and equally obese adolescents without diabetes or pre-diabetes has found that those with diabetes had significantly impaired cognitive performance, as well as clear abnormalities in the integrity of their

I have often spoken of the mantra: What’s good for your heart is good for your brain. The links between cardiovascular risk factors and cognitive decline gets more confirmation in this latest finding that people whose hearts pumped less blood had smaller brains than those whose hearts pumped more blood. The study involved 1,504 participants of the decades-long Framingham Offspring Cohort who did not have a history of stroke, transient ischemic attack or dementia. Participants were 34 to 84 years old.

A number of studies have found that source memory (knowing where you heard/read/experienced something) is a particular problem for older adults. Destination memory (knowing who you’ve told) is an area that has been much less studied. Last year I reported on why destination memory is difficult for all of us (my report is repeated below). A follow-up study has found not only that destination memory is a particular problem for older adults, but that it is in fact a worse problem than source memory.

No big surprise, surely: a new study has found that computers do not magically improve students’ study skills — they tend to study online material using the same techniques they would use with traditional texts. Which means, it appears, poor strategies.

On the subject of the benefits of walking for seniors, it’s intriguing to note a recent pilot study that found frail seniors who walked slowly (no faster than one meter per second) benefited from a brain fitness program known as Mindfit. After eight weeks of sessions three times weekly (each session 45-60 minutes), all ten participants walked a little faster, and significantly faster while talking. Walking while talking requires considerably more concentration than normal walking.

A study involving 65 older adults (59-80), who were very sedentary before the study (reporting less than two episodes of physical activity lasting 30 minutes or more in the previous six months), has found that those who joined a walking group improved their cognitive performance and the connectivity in important brain circuits after a year. However, those who joined a stretching and toning group showed no such improvement. The walking program involved three 40-minute walks at a moderate pace every week.

A study involving over 180,000 older veterans (average age 68.8 at study start), of whom 29% had PTSD, has revealed that those with PTSD had a significantly greater risk of developing dementia. Over the seven years of the study, 10.6% of the veterans with PTSD developed dementia compared to 6.6% of those without PTSD. When age was used as the time scale, the risk for those with PTSD was more than double. Results were similar when those with a history of head injury, substance abuse, or clinical depression, were excluded.

Following on from previous research with mice that demonstrated that a diet rich in

Neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1) is the most common cause of learning disabilities, caused by a mutation in a gene that makes a protein called neurofibromin. Mouse research has now revealed that these mutations are associated with higher levels of the inhibitory

A very large study of older women has found that although there was a small downward trend in cognitive function (as measured by the MMSE) with increasing obesity, this trend was almost entirely driven by those with a waist-hip ratio below 0.78 — that is, for women who carry excess weight around their hips, known as pear shapes (as opposed to carrying it around the waist, called apple shapes).

The study involved 13 patients and 14 controls, who listened to either spoken lyrics or lyrics sung with full musical accompaniment while reading the printed lyrics on a screen. The 40 lyrics were four-line excerpts of children’s songs, all characterized by having simple, unrepeated lyrics, repetitive melodies, and a perfect end-rhyme scheme for the four lines. The participants were then given these 40 lyrics mixed in with 40 other similar lyrics, and asked whether they had heard it earlier.

A study involving over 1100 patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease at 50 French clinics has revealed that receiving a comprehensive care plan involving regular 6-monthly assessments (with standardised guidelines for the management of problems) produced no benefits compared to receiving the usual care (an annual consultation). After two years, there was no significant difference in functional decline between the two groups, and no difference in the risk of being admitted to an institution or death.

A small study suggests that the apathy shown by many Alzheimer's patients may not simply be due to memory or language problems, but to a decreased ability to experience emotions. The seven patients were asked to rate pictures of positive and negative scenes (such as babies and spiders) by putting a mark closer or further to either a happy face or a sad face emoticon. Closeness to the face indicated the strength of the emotion felt.

Data from the long-running Framingham Heart Study has revealed that depression significantly increased the risk of developing dementia. Of the 125 people (13%) who were classified as having depression at the start of the study, 21.6% had developed dementia by the end of the study (17 years later). This compares to around 16.6% of those who weren’t depressed. When age, gender, education,

A new study explains why variable practice improves your memory of most skills better than practice focused on a single task. The study compared skill learning between those asked to practice one particular challenging arm movement, and those who practiced the movement with other related tasks in a variable practice structure.

I’ve talked about the importance of labels for memory, so I was interested to see that a recent series of experiments has found that hearing the name of an object improved people’s ability to see it, even when the object was flashed onscreen in conditions and speeds (50 milliseconds) that would render it invisible. The effect was specific to language; a visual preview didn’t help.

A new automated vocal analysis technology can discriminate pre-verbal vocalizations of very young children with autism with 86% accuracy. The LENA™ (Language Environment Analysis) system also differentiated typically developing children and children with autism from children with language delay. The processor fits into the pocket of specially designed children's clothing and records everything the child vocalizes.

Confirming previous research, a study involving 270 Alzheimer’s patients has found that larger head size was associated with better performance on memory and thinking tests, even when there was an equivalent degree of brain damage.

A study involving 117 six year old children and 104 eight year old children has found that the ability to preserve information in

Manipulation of nearly 16 million individual samples of scores and more than 8 trillion individual scores on commonly used tests, including civil service and other pre-employment exams and university entrance exams, has revealed that the tools used to check tests of "general mental ability" for bias overwhelmingly and repeatedly missed the bias inserted in the data. In other words, we’ve been testing potential test bias with a biased procedure.

Anticholinergics are widely used for a variety of common medical conditions including insomnia, allergies, or incontinence, and many are sold over the counter. Now a large six-year study of older African-Americans has found that taking one anticholinergic significantly increased an individual's risk of developing mild cognitive impairment and taking two of these drugs doubled this risk. The risk was greater for those who didn’t have the ‘Alzheimer’s gene’, APOE-e4.

While brain training programs can certainly improve your ability to do the task you’re practicing, there has been little evidence that this transfers to other tasks. In particular, the holy grail has been very broad transfer, through improvement in

Context is important for memory. Therefore it’s not surprising that shifting your mind’s focus to another context can impair recall — or help you forget. Following on from research finding that thinking about something else blocks access to memories of the recent past, a new study has found that daydreaming about a more distant place impairs memory more compared to daydreaming about a closer place.

Findings that children are less likely than adults to distort memories when negative emotions are evoked has significant implications for the criminal justice system. Experiments involving children aged seven and 11, and young adults (18-23) found that when they were shown lists of closely related emotional words (e.g. pain, cut, ouch, cry, injury), they would tend to mistakenly remember a related word (e.g. hurt) although it had not been present.

A number of studies have demonstrated that negative stereotypes (such as “women are bad at math”) can impair performance in tests. Now a new study shows that this effect extends to learning. The study involved learning to recognize target Chinese characters among sets of two or four. Women who were reminded of the negative stereotypes involving women's math and visual processing ability failed to improve at this search task, while women who were not reminded of the stereotype got faster with practice.

While studies have demonstrated that listening to music before doing a task can improve performance on that task, chiefly through its effect on mood, there has been little research into the effects of background music while doing the task. A new study had participants recall a list of 8 consonants in a specific order in the presence of five sound environments: quiet, liked music, disliked music, changing-state (a sequence of random digits such as "4, 7, 1, 6") and steady-state ("3, 3, 3").

A review of the many recent studies into the effects of music training on the nervous system strongly suggests that the neural connections made during musical training also prime the brain for other aspects of human communication, including learning. It’s suggested that actively engaging with musical sounds not only helps the plasticity of the brain, but also helps provide a stable scaffolding of meaningful patterns. Playing an instrument primes the brain to choose what is relevant in a complex situation.

A rat study demonstrates how specialized brain training can reverse many aspects of normal age-related cognitive decline in targeted areas. The month-long study involved daily hour-long sessions of intense auditory training targeted at the primary auditory cortex. The rats were rewarded for picking out the oddball note in a rapid sequence of six notes (five of them of the same pitch). The difference between the oddball note and the others became progressively smaller. After the training, aged rats showed substantial reversal of their previously degraded ability to process sound.

Another study has come out showing that older adults with low levels of vitamin D are more likely to have cognitive problems. The six-year study followed 858 adults who were age 65 or older at the beginning of the study. Those who were severely deficient in vitamin D were 60% more likely to have substantial cognitive decline, and 31% more likely to have specific declines in executive function, although there was no association with attention.

It’s been suggested before that Down syndrome and Alzheimer's are connected. Similarly, there has been evidence for connections between diabetes and Alzheimer’s, and cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s. Now new evidence shows that all of these share a common disease mechanism. According to animal and cell-culture studies, it seems all Alzheimer's disease patients harbor some cells with three copies of chromosome 21, known as trisomy 21, instead of the usual two. Trisomy 21 is characteristic of all the cells in people with Down syndrome.

Part of the Women's Health Initiative study looking at the effect of hormone therapy on thinking and memory in postmenopausal women, involving over 1400 women, has found those who had high blood pressure at the start of the study (eight years earlier) had significantly higher amounts of

A three-year study involving 169 people with mild cognitive impairment has found that those who later developed Alzheimer's disease showed 10-30% greater atrophy in two specific locations within the

A study involving 511 older adults (average age 78) has found that 11.6% of those with very mild or mild Alzheimer’s (43% of the participants) had mental lapses, compared to only 2 of the 295 without Alzheimer’s. Those with mental lapses also tended to have more severe Alzheimer’s. Although mental lapses are characteristic of dementia with

Previous research suggesting loss of smell function may serve as an early marker of Alzheimer's disease has now been supported by a finding that in

Loss of memory and problems with judgment in dementia patients can cause difficulties in relation to eating and nutrition; these problems in turn can lead to poor quality of life, pressure ulcers and infections. A study used two different step-by-step training programs to help dementia patients regain eating skills. Three institutions, involving 85 patients, were assigned to one of three programs: spaced retrieval training; Montessori-based training; control. Training consisted of three 30-40 min sessions per week, for 8 weeks.

A European trial involving 225 patients with mild Alzheimer's has found that those who drank Souvenaid (a cocktail of uridine, choline and the omega-3 fatty acid DHA, plus B vitamins, phosopholipids and antioxidants) for 12 weeks were more likely to improve their performance in a delayed verbal recall task. 40% of the Souvenaid group showed improved performance compared to 24% of the placebo group. Those with the mildest cases of Alzheimer’s showed the most improvement. There was no improvement on the more general ADAS-cog test. Three further clinical trials, one in the U.S.

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