What Is Working Memory and How Is It Affected by Alzheimer's?

Here's What Happens to Working Memory in Dementia
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Sometimes referred to as intermediate memory, the working memory may be thought of as a temporary storage bin for information that is needed to complete a specific task. Some researchers feel that working memory significantly overlaps with short-term memory, and might even argue that they're the same thing. However, the term working memory in research generally seems to imply the ability not only to remember information for a period of time but also to use, manipulate and apply it, perhaps while also accessing other stored pieces of information.

According to Smith and Kosslyn in Cognitive Psychology, working memory is like a blackboard where you put information, move it around and use it, and then erase it and go on to the next task.

An example of using working memory as described by Smith and Kosslyn is where you are participating in a discussion and you think of a comment you want to make. You have to wait until there's a pause in the conversation so that you won't interrupt someone else. You also need to listen to the debate so that you can adequately respond to the comments the other persons are making, all while not forgetting how you're going to present your own point.

The Baddeley-Hitch Model of Working Memory

The Baddeley-Hitch model of working memory suggests that there are two components of working memory:

  • Visuospatial Scratchpad- a place where you store visual and spatial information
  • Phonological Loop- a place where you record auditory information

    A third part, the central executive, is the controller and mediator of these two different aspects of our working memory. According to Baddeley and Hitch, the central executive processes information, directs attention, sets goals and makes decisions.

    How Do Alzheimer's and Other Kinds of Dementia Affect Working Memory?

    A study conducted by Kensinger, et al.

    researched working memory and how it is affected by Alzheimer's. They concluded that working memory is reduced in Alzheimer's, and that one of the reasons for this decline is the effect of Alzheimer's on semantic memory. Semantic memory is the ability to understand and recognize words. Since language processing may be slower in Alzheimer's, working memory (which uses our stored memories) may also be impaired.

    Another study conducted by Gagnon and Belleville measured working memory by assessing participants' ability to retain numbers. They found that working memory is reduced in people with mild cognitive impairment in comparison to those with normal cognitive functioning, and further reduced in people who have Alzheimer's disease.

    Can You Improve Your Working Memory if You Have Alzheimer's Disease?

    Possibly. A research study by Huntley, Bor, Hampshire, Owen, and Howard demonstrated that people with early stage (mild) Alzheimer's were able to learn, use and benefit from chunking- a method where a person groups (chunks) material together to make it easier to remember.

    Some people also experience a temporary improvement in their memory through use of medications to treat Alzheimer's disease.

    Sources:

    The British Journal of Psychiatry (2011) 198: 398-403. Working memory task performance and chunking in early Alzheimer’s disease. Accessed September 22, 2012. http://bjp.rcpsych.org/content/198/5/398.abstract

    The DANA Foundation. Behavior, Stress Affect Alzheimer’s Disease Risk. Accessed September 21, 2012. http://www.dana.org/news/brainwork/detail.aspx?id=5926

    Memory Loss and the Brain. The Newsletter of the Memory Disorders Project at Rutgers University. Memory. Accessed September 21, 2012. http://www.memorylossonline.com/glossary/memory.html

    Neuropsychology. 2011 Mar;25(2):226-36. Gagnon, LG, and Belleville, S. Accessed September 21, 2012. Working memory in mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease: contribution of forgetting and predictive value of complex span tasks. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21090897

    Neuropsychology. 2010 March; 24(2): 222–243. The Relationship Between Working Memory Capacity and Executive Functioning: Evidence for a Common Executive Attention Construct. Accessed September 22, 2012. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2852635/

    Neuropsychology. 2003, Vol. 17, No. 2, 230–239. Kensinger, Shearer, Locascio, Growdon and Corkin. Accessed September 21, 2012. Working Memory in Mild Alzheimer’s Disease and Early Parkinson’s Disease.

    Progress in Brain Research. What are the differences between long-term, short-term, and working memory? Accessed September 21, 2012. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2657600/

    Stanford University. Working Memory. Edward E. Smith and Stephen M. Kosslyn. Accessed September 22, 2012.

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