Memory Training Builds Up Brain’s Gray Matter in Older Adults With Mild Cognitive Impairment

Helen Lavretsky, M.D. - Brain & Behavior Research Expert on Alzheimer's
Helen Lavretsky, M.D.

In a study comparing the effects of memory training and yoga meditation in older adults, researchers found that a 12-week program of memory training could increase the volume of gray matter and reduce levels of a compound related to aging in the brains of those with mild cognitive impairment.

By contrast, a 12-week program of yogic meditation did not produce any detectable changes in gray matter volume and neurochemical levels in older adults, the researchers concluded in their paper published November 21, 2016 in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. The study was led by Hongyu Yang, Ph.D., a 2014 NARSAD Young Investigator, and 1999 Young Investigator Helen Lavretsky, M.D., both at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.

The study followed participants aged 55 and older who had signs of mild cognitive impairment, such as memory loss, losing a train of thought, or confusing words or places. Mild cognitive impairment is thought to lead in some cases to more severe cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, making it essential to look for ways to prevent this age-related cognitive decline. With this in mind, Drs. Yang and Lavretsky looked at how behavioral interventions like memory training and yogic meditation might directly impact parts of the brain important for memory and cognition.

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During the 12-week program, 11 people completed weekly memory enhancement training that included mnemonic verbal and visual cues to improve memory, while 14 study participants took a weekly yoga meditation class. After 12 weeks, brain imaging revealed a trend toward increasing gray matter volume in a portion of the brain called the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex in those who completed the memory training only. A second type of imaging further showed that levels of choline, a compound associated with neural aging, declined in people who did the memory training but did not fall in individuals who took the yoga class.

Although the effects were small, the researchers write, the results “do indicate that participating in effective behavioral interventions may help to ameliorate age-related brain changes associated with poor memory and cognitive performance.”

The research team also included Amber Leaver, Ph.D., a 2015 Young Investigator, and Katherine L. Narr, Ph.D., a 2003 Young Investigator, both from the UCLA Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center.

TAKEAWAY: A 12-week program of memory training increased gray matter volume and decreased levels of a compound related to brain aging in older adults with mild cognitive impairment.