Photo: Study lead from NeuRA, Sharon Savage, with a research participant. Photo by Anne Graham.
By Yasmin Noone
People with dementia who have lost their ability to remember words, could regain most of their language memory using a simple computer training-program, a new study has found.
Research from Neuroscience Research Australia (NeURA) has found that basic word-training programs,which present information in a format similar to a PowerPoint slideshow, might enable people with semantic dementia to recover their memory for words.
The three-week training program tested utilised paired images of household objects such as food, appliances, utensils, tools and clothing, with a recording of their names.
Participants, aged 62 years on average, were exposed to each item frequently and regularly asked to recall the item or its description.
Outcomes were measured three-weeks later and followed up shortly thereafter.
All the participants were able to recall at least 80 per cent of the 60 words learned (divided into two lists).
The findings show that even brains affected by dementia, with the right kind of training, are able to partially recover some level of function.
“Patients with a wide range of semantic impairments benefit from such practice, most likely reflecting the similar level of preservation in other cognitive skills necessary to engage meaningfully in the practice, such as everyday memory and attention,” the study – published in the international journal on cognition, Cortex, states.
“Importantly, this finding has implications for treatment planning, and suggests that patients with severe semantic impairments should not be overlooked when considering word relearning programs.”
According to the study lead, Sharon Savage, participants with the most significant vocabulary issues – caused by their semantic dementia – showed the most improvement.
“I didn’t expect that because as the disease progresses, it usually becomes harder for someone to [identify a word and its related meaning],” said Ms Savage, who is in the process of completing a PhD on cognitive training with frontemporal dementia with the University of NSW.
“I thought it would be harder for these participants to take the practice on and benefit.
“But we saw that the study provided an opportunity to the patient who had lost almost most of the words to make the strongest gains.”
The findings provide hope for people living with the rare form of dementia – semantic dementia which commonly strikes younger people and attacks their language abilities – as it could lead to improvements in their quality of life.
“People with this type of dementia lose semantic memory, the memory system we use to store and remember words and their meanings.
“…Semantic dementia is a younger-onset dementia and because sufferers lose everyday words life can be very frustrating for them and their families.
“By relearning some of these everyday words, day-to-day conversations around the house may become less frustrating, improving patient well-being.”
But, she stressed, the findings show that as the disease becomes more severe, it is important to keep going with the program to reap the maximum benefit.
“I had the opportunity to ask a few different families about the experience of doing the training and its benefits. Certainly, family members could see that the person with dementia was able to improve their words and patients themselves were quite excited about the fact they could make a positive difference to their lives.
“The program was something that allowed people with semantic dementia more empowered and feel a lot more happiness.”
The study results, Ms Savage said, are quite encouraging and lessons can be learnt by other researchers.
“Unfortunately, there’s no cure for these dementias and so there’s a tendency for people to think therefore that nothing can be done.
“What’s exciting is that there’s an opportunity for dementia patients to improve their everyday life in the absence of a cure.
“And improvements have been seen quite quickly: within three weeks we could see improvements.
“…But the main finding from this project is that people with the most severe [dementia-related] problems are able to improve their own vocabulary.
“I think patients with severe problems might get overlooked for an intervention. But this study sends out a nice message – it’s never too late to jump in and have a go.”
The finer print
Specific words were selected as part of the word-training lists, according to their relevance and importance to the participant’s life. Ms Savage decided which words would be included in consultation with the person with dementia and their family members/carers.
The word-training program was also created to be easily replicated using a program like Microsoft PowerPoint, and was designed to be simple and accessible.
“The program is run on the computer but the user does not require any technical expertise as the program is designed in such a simple way.
“It’s something that can be set up like a PowerPoint program on a home computer. The person can go around and take photos of things around the house. And there is now so much technology to record words and pair them up with photos themselves. So there is an opportunity for anyone to do this.
“…The biggest ingredient to this program is that the participant has the willingness to give it a go. Certainly the participants who were the most keen to try it will certainly show the best results.”
This part of Ms Savage’s research only involved four participants. Semantic dementia is a rarer type of dementia than Alzheimer’s disease “so you don’t see as many cases walk through our door”, she said.
“There are small numbers of people affected but it is very detailed work so the study still provides a lot of information”.
The PhD study is ongoing. Long-term results will be sought after as will the impact of the word-training program on the brain.
“It’s interesting how improvements are made and their effect on the brain. It’s something I’m very interested in.
“My hunch says [these findings] are probably working more to help the person with dementia in a functional away but it would be very exciting to see if there was a positive brain change too.”
The research was supported by a number of grants, one of which comes from the Australia Research Council’s Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders.