For Patients with Memory Loss, Emotions Remain

Young woman and her grandfather

A new study offers some good news for caregivers and other loved ones of individuals with Alzheimer's disease. The study shows that even if patients immediately forget a shared joke or a meaningful conversation, the warm feelings associated with the experience can stick around and boost their mood.

In the University of Iowa study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers showed individuals with memory loss clips of happy and sad movies. Although the participants couldn't recall what they had watched, they retained the emotions elicited by the clips.

Justin Feinstein, lead study author and a University of Iowa doctoral student in clinical neuropsychology, says the discovery has direct implications for Alzheimer's disease. "A simple visit or phone call from family members might have a lingering positive influence on a patient's happiness even though the patient may quickly forget the visit or phone call," Feinstein says. He adds that patients who are ignored or neglected may feel “sad, frustrated and lonely even though the patient can't remember why."

The researchers studied patients with damage to their hippocampus, a part of the brain that is critical for transferring short-term memories into long-term storage. Damage to the hippocampus prevents new memories from being acquired. This same type of amnesia is an early sign of Alzheimer's disease.

The experiment started with an emotion-induction technique using powerful film clips. Each patient viewed 20 minutes of either sad or happy movies on separate days. The movies triggered the appropriate emotion, ranging from intense bouts of laughter during happy films to tears of sorrow during sad ones.

About ten minutes after the clip ended, researchers gave patients a memory test to see if they could recall what they had watched. As expected, the patients performed poorly.

After the memory test, patients then answered questions to gauge their emotions. "Indeed, they still felt the emotion. Sadness tended to last a bit longer than happiness, but both emotions lasted well beyond their memory of the films," Feinstein says. "With healthy people, you see feelings decay as time goes on. In some test patients, the feelings didn't decay; in fact, their sadness lingered."

These findings reinforce the importance of attending to the emotional needs of people with Alzheimer's disease, which is expected to affect as many as 100 million people worldwide by 2050.

"Age is the greatest risk factor for Alzheimer's, and there's currently no cure," Feinstein says. "What we're about to face is an epidemic. We're going to have more and more baby boomers getting older, and more and more people with Alzheimer's disease. The burden of care for these individuals is enormous.” Feinstein adds, "What this research suggests is that we need to start setting a scientifically informed standard of care for patients with memory disorders. Here is clear evidence showing that the reasons for treating Alzheimer's patients with respect and dignity go beyond simple human morals."

Source: University of Iowa. The study was funded by the Fraternal Order of Eagles, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Kiwanis International Foundation.