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When? Who? What ?? Memory!

Big idea  with Sonja Chandler

When? Who?? and what were they wearing?

Our brains encode and store information and we recall it later. People used to think that individual memories were stored in a special place – a kind of filing cabinet – in the brain.

Today’s neuroscientists believe that memory is more complex and different brain systems are used to make different kinds of memory. This month’s Big idea looks at…at…ah, yes, at memory!

Memory, menopause and testosterone

US research reported this year (in the journal Menopause!) looked at how women going through menopause really do seem to have trouble with memory. Although seemingly part of the ‘common knowledge’, the findings from large-scale tests confirmed that menopausal women who complain about trouble remembering things really don’t remember them – and the worse their hot flushes, the worse their negative moods, the worse results they had with memory tasks.

However, there may be help for the memories of post-menopausal women through testosterone therapy. The male hormone has been implicated as being important in brain function in men. In a recent Monash University study, post-menopausal women were randomly assigned to apply a testosterone gel or a visually identical placebo gel to the skin.

All participants did a series of cognitive (mental processes such as knowing, perceiving, remembering) tests at the beginning of the experiment and 26 weeks later.

At the end, there were ‘statistically significant and clinically meaningful improvements’ in the verbal learning and memory in women using the testosterone gel. These findings provide compelling evidence to support larger clinical trials; particularly since the women receiving the testosterone treatments appeared to have no negative side-effects.

7 tips to improve your memory

The prestigious Mayo Clinic says that while there are no guarantees to preventing memory loss, simple actions can help sharpen your memory. And, seek help if you are troubled by memory loss.

No. 1: Stay mentally active – Just as physical activity helps keep your body in shape, stimulating mental activities help keep your brain in shape.

No. 2: Socialise regularly – Social interaction helps ward off depression and stress, both of which can contribute to memory loss.

No. 3: Get organised – You’re more likely to forget things if your home is cluttered and notes in disarray.

No. 4: Focus – Limit distractions, and don’t try to do too many things at once. If you focus on the information that you’re trying to remember, you’ll be more likely to recall it later.

No. 5: Eat a healthy diet – A heart-healthy diet may be as good for your brain as it is for your heart. Not enough water or too much alcohol can lead to confusion and memory loss.

No. 6: Include physical activity in your daily routine – Physical activity increases blood flow to your whole body, including your brain.

No. 7: Manage chronic conditions – The better you take care of yourself, the better your memory is likely to be.

Memory meds, do they work?

While many different vitamins, foods and/or practices are said to be ‘miracle’ cures for memory loss, when clinically meaningful large-scale studies are done, many claims don’t hold up. Medications for boosting memory are often aimed at developing treatment for patients with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Drugs are also being developed that will weaken memories – for example for people suffering from post-traumatic stress, defence personnel, emergency services workers etc.

The drugs work by changing the levels of chemical messengers in the brain. These chemical messengers also do other things in the brain which means that the drugs often have additional effects – both good (positive effect on mood and confidence) and bad (dizziness, nausea and vomiting).

Using drugs to enhance the memories of people not suffering memory loss (ie students or game show contestants) is contentious. The arguments are similar to those facing sporting bodies – think performance enhancing drugs.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Centre for Neuroscience & Society has an interesting article on the subject and argues that ethical issues surrounding drug enhancement come in three different categories: safety (the brain is so complex that predicting and dealing with the side effects of any drug can be complicated); social (how will society cope with different levels of enhancement, similar to coping with the widespread drug enhancement in some sports); and philosophical (who are we after we enhance ourselves?).

Food for thought, if we can remember it.

Image credit: Wiki Commons

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