Memory Training Changes the Brain

By: Dr. Pascale Michelon

Individuals diagnosed with Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI) show early signs of memory loss and are at high risk of developing dementia. As discussed in a previous post, they can greatly benefit from regular brain exercises. A recent study shows that the memory improvement caused by brain training can be directly observed in the brain.

The Memory Training
Belleville and colleagues used Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to study the brain activity of 15 healthy older adults and 15 older adults with MCI, 6 weeks prior to a memory training, one week prior to training, and one week after training. They were trying to assess whether brain training can reverse the brain changes associated with MCI.
The memory training program was designed to help the older adults develop new strategies to boost their memory, such as using mnemonics. It was hypothesized that to do so the participants would need to use alternative areas of the brain. In other words, it was hypothesized that intact brain cells, not traditionally involved in memory, could take over. This would be possible thanks to the brain plasticity, that is the brain ability to change and rewire based on our experiences.

What Happened in the Brain?
Before the memory training, both healthy and MCI participants showed activity in areas of the brain traditionally associated with memory, although the activity was decreased in the MCI brains.
After the memory training, participants with MCI showed increased activity in the brain areas typically associated with memory. Interestingly they also show increased activity in new areas of the brain, usually associated with processes different from memory such as language processing, spatial and object memory, and skill learning.
In addition the brain activity differences originally observed between healthy and MCI participants were attenuated by the training in a number of brain regions.

What Does it Mean?
These results indicate that memory training can actually change the brain. The improvement resulting from memory training can be observed at the neuronal level and be measured with brain imaging.
Another good piece of news is that the brains of people experiencing early memory loss, such as people diagnosed with MCI, are still plastic: they can change with training. A great reason to start or keep incorporating mental stimulation in your daily life, at any time: It is never too early or too late to take care of your brain.

Belleville, S., Clement, F., Mellah, S., Gilbert, B., Fontaine, F., & Gauthier, S. (2011). Brain Training-related brain plasticity in subjects at risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Brain, 134 (6), 1623-1634.

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