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Alzheimer's Disease Health Center

Alzheimer's: What Once Was Lost Now Is Found

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Jan. 30, 2000 -- "John" is in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's disease -- and no longer remembers many of life's details. Just a few months ago, he was incapable of finding his room at the senior living center. His constant, continuous question to caregivers and other patients: "What's my room number?"

But thanks to a training technique called "space retrieval," John can now remember the number and even makes jokes about his previous problem. That room number is now in John's long-term memory and has been for 6 months.

Such small gains are vitally important to patients with Alzheimer's and their families. Through innovative therapies like space retrieval, patients at various stages of the disease are regaining vocabulary words and daily living skills once thought to be lost forever.

Space Retrieval: Helping Patients Learn, Make New Connections

"In late-stage Alzheimer's, patients generally forget -- almost immediately -- what's been said to them," says Cameron Camp, PhD, director of the Myers Research Institute in the Menorah Park Center for Senior Living in Beachwood, Ohio. "Yet, every patient has a very short 'window' during which they retain the answers. It may be two minutes, it may be 30 seconds -- then they lose access to it."

Space retrieval involves widening that window, helping Alzheimer's patients remember new information over longer and longer time intervals.

"It's helping people with all forms of dementia retain information for days, weeks, months," Camp tells WebMD.

With a grant from the federally funded National Institutes on Aging, Camp has conducted preliminary studies of this concept. He has published results of a small study involving seven patients in the Journal of Gerontology.

"We've found that if we can push that window, stretch that interval up to eight-12 minutes, the information starts going into long-term memory," Camp says. "It's not improving memory per se, but makes information more accessible to them."

The therapy is adapted to solve different problems with each patient. With John, therapists took advantage of his ability to learn single words, like his room number. Yet, other patients are trained to take specific action when questions pop into their heads.

Camp gives the example of one woman who could never remember mealtimes. He wrote the information on a card and put it in the purse she always carried. He trained her to look for the card when the question popped into her head. Other patients have been trained to look for color-coded messages on a board for answers to their frequent questions.

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