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RSNA: Rote Memorization Drills Improve Memory Skills in Older Patients


CHICAGO -- Six weeks of intensive rote memorization exercises led to improved verbal and episodic memory skills for older patients, an improvement that corresponded with metabolic changes in brain, researchers here reported.

CHICAGO, Nov. 28 -- Six weeks of intensive rote memorization exercises led to improved verbal and episodic memory skills for older patients, researchers reported here.

The improvement corresponded with metabolic changes in brain, reported Jonathan McNulty, B.Sc., of the School of Medicine and Medical Science at University College Dublin in Ireland at the Radiological Society of North America meeting here.

Six weeks after the rote memorization training ended magnetic resonance spectroscopy confirmed increases in three brain metabolites in the left posterior hippocampus and the left pre-frontal cortex, said McNulty and psychologist Richard Roche, Ph.D., of National University of Ireland in Maynooth.

The improvement in memory skills was, however, "not immediately apparent and it was only observed among those volunteers who had a high level of compliance with the memorization protocol," Dr. Roche said.

Standard memory tests as well as magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) were conducted at baseline, at the end of the six-week memorization program, and after six weeks of rest.

The pilot study recruited 24 healthy adults, mean age 60. Following baseline assessment they were assigned to six weeks of intensive memorization or normal activity. At the end of the first six weeks, the groups were crossed over.

Dr. Roche said that only one of the two groups-the patients who were initially randomized to the rote memorization regimen-achieved good compliance with the memory tasks.

"We asked them to memorize 500 words-an article or a poem-every week," Dr. Roche said. At the end of each week the participants were tested to assess their success at the memorization task.

Dr. Roche said the participants were given a selection of articles and poems each week or they could choose their own selection. "A newspaper article about the life of Bob Hope was one of the most popular selections, but one participant memorized the poetry of Oscar Wilde," he said.

MRS tracked levels of N-acetylaspartate, creatine, and choline in brain, chemicals that McNulty said "are indicators both of memory and of neural cell viability."

Immediately following the six-week program there was no change in either MRS scans or memory tests, but after the six-week rest there was evidence of improvement in the left hemisphere of the brain, McNulty said.

He said that there were increases in all three metabolites with the greatest increase observed in N-acetylaspartate concentration. On the memory tests, participants were better able to recall word lists, to recall and repeat a short story, and to recall specific events from the previous day or week, Dr. Roche said.

Moreover, the participants were less easily distracted, Dr. Roche said.

But the improvements were only observed in the group that demonstrated a high degree of compliance with the memory drills, he noted.

Dr. Roche also cautioned that the adults in this study were healthy with no history of memory or cognitive impairment. Moreover, he said that the volunteers have not been followed, so it is unknown if the improvements observed in this study were durable.

"Memory declines with age, but this study suggests that regular mental exercise -- such as memorization -- may slow or prevent age-related memory impairment," Dr. Roche said.

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