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updated 3/28/2011 1:36:24 PM ET 2011-03-28T17:36:24

Using memory techniques can help the brain develop new pathways for learning and improve memory, even for people with early signs of Alzheimer's disease, a new study suggests.

People with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) improved their scores on a memory assessment by 33 percent after learning how to properly use memory devices like mnemonics and word lists, the study said.

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Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) revealed that the memory techniques increased activity in certain regions of their brain associated with processing language, learning skills and remembering space and objects, said study researcher Sylvie Belleville, director of research at the University Institute of Geriatrics of Montreal.

The learning improvements are likely a cause of brain plasticity, Belleville said. Brain plasticity is the brain's ability to change the way it learns in response to external influences, but health experts had long thought plasticity decreased in people with mild cognitive impairment.

But the study shows that even the brains of people with MCI have plasticity, a promising discovery for delaying the effects of Alzheimer's disease, Belleville said.

"We have evidence, here, that there's a lot of potential for brain plasticity in this early stage" of memory loss, Belleville told MyHealthNewsDaily.

The study was published online this week in Brain: A Journal of Neurology.

Activation increases in the brain
Belleville and her colleagues examined the memory of 15 elderly adults with mild cognitive impairment and 15 healthy elderly adults. The adults with MCI participated in a memory training program that taught them how to use memory devices to improve the retrieval and encoding of memories, the study said. Then, they took a test to assess their memory.

Adults with MCI improved their scores on the memory test by 33 percent after undergoing memory training, the study said.
To see what was going on physically in the brains of adults with MCI, researchers also conducted MRIs on the adults six weeks before memory training, a week before memory training and a week after memory training

In adults with MCI, there was decreased brain activation in the hippocampus, located in the medial temporal lobe, compared with adults without MCI, Belleville said. The hippocampus is one of the first parts of the brain damaged during Alzheimer's disease, and plays a central role in forming and storing memories.

But after the adults with MCI went through the memory training program, the MRIs showed an increase in activation of parts of the brain responsible for language processing, learning skills and remembering spaces and objects, the study said.

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Many pathways for learning
The finding suggests that memory is not achieved by only one pathway in the brain, Belleville said. Rather, the brain is able to compensate for decreased activation in the hippocampus by increasing activation in other areas of the brain, she said.

"We don't see an increased activation in areas that are impaired, but we see increased activation in areas [of the brain] that seem to be normally functioning," Belleville said."It shows that [the brain] is quite malleable, in a way."

Therefore, by improving brain plasticity through these memory techniques, it could be possible to delay the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, she said.

Pass it on: Mnemonics and word lists can improve memory and learning in people with early Alzheimer's disease.

Follow MyHealthNewsDaily staff writer Amanda Chan on Twitter @ AmandaLChan.

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