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Chunking in early Alzheimer's disease

Friday 27 May 2011

Researchers from the Department of Old Age Psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s, investigated if simple memory strategies can improve the short term or working memory of patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

A pilot study published this month in the British Journal of Psychiatry, looked at whether patients with early Alzheimer’s disease can use chunking strategies to improve their working memory.  Chunking is a simple but effective strategy that involves grouping information into smaller chunks that are easier to remember, just as we commonly do when asked to remember a phone number.

In the study, 15 healthy elderly people and 28 patients with Alzheimer’s disease, divided into ‘very mild’ and ‘mild’ disease groups, performed a series of verbal and spatial memory tasks. In these tasks they were asked to remember sequences of numbers or patterns. The sequences were either structured and easy to chunk, or random.  These tasks were designed in collaboration with scientists at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, who have shown in previous studies that structured sequences encourage chunking, which significantly improves working memory capacity in young healthy subjects.

All participants did significantly better on the structured trials of the verbal working memory task, which indicates that patients with early Alzheimer’s disease successfully used chunking strategies for this task. However, on the spatial working memory task, only healthy subjects and patients with very mild Alzheimer’s disease were able to use chunking strategies.

Dr Jonathan Huntley, one of the authors of the study, commented: ‘The study suggests that patients with early Alzheimer’s disease are still able to use chunking to improve their verbal working memory. This offers a new strategy for working with people with Alzheimer’s disease to improve their memory function.  We are now investigating whether simple training in chunking can help prolong working memory functioning in patients with early Alzheimer’s disease.’

Working memory task performance and chunking in early Alzheimer’s disease’ is published in this month’s British Journal of Psychiatry.

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