New memory test could help detect early signs of dementia

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A study by researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London suggests a new type of sensitive memory test could contribute to earlier diagnosis of dementia.

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The Verbal Associative Learning and Memory Test (VALMT) could detect Accelerated Long-Term Forgetting, one of the possible early markers for Alzheimer's disease, in otherwise healthy older individuals, new research has found.

The research paper, published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, led by Dr Ashok Jansari, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Goldsmiths, and PhD student Terence McGibbon found that the VALMT is able to differentiate between healthy elderly individuals who are able to hold onto information they have learnt, and those who forget the information rapidly, demonstrating Accelerated Long-Term Forgetting (ALF).

The study examined two groups, 30 older participants (60-69 years) and 30 younger participants (19-31 years), investigating their learning and forgetting using pairs of unrelated words. The words were learnt and tested at different time intervals and all 60 individuals were asked to report any concerns they had about their memory (subjective memory complaints).

The researchers found that whilst “fast-learning” older participants had VALMT scores similar to younger participants, “slow-learning” older participants scored lower regardless of the time interval between learning and being asked to recall a word pair. They also found that increased subjective memory complaints were associated with lower VALMT scores. By contrast a standard clinical measure (the Wechsler Memory Scale Logical Memory test) failed to identify significant differences between any groups and did not correlate with memory complaints.

Dr Ashok Jansari, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Goldsmiths said: “The most important finding in the paper is that VALMT can detect rapid forgetting (ALF) in otherwise healthy individuals in a manner that a current clinical test cannot. This could be a major finding both clinically and scientifically.”

The researchers hope the new test could help people with dementia and their families by enabling support mechanisms to be put in place earlier. This could include smart technologies or techniques that help them to hold onto information in their everyday lives, preserving more of their cognitive abilities and independence.

The VALMT also addresses the methodological weaknesses in existing clinical tests, using a more sensitive memory measurement. Dr Ashok Jansari said: “Clinicians rarely see a patient more than once and need assessments that give objective results within an hour or so. VALMT does this by requiring the individual to learn new information in a deeper sense than previous tests require, with the result that more subtle deficits can come to the fore more easily.

“Put simply, for issues such as dementia, the current tests are more akin to using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut – they are not sensitive enough while VALMT has demonstrated this sensitivity.”

Whilst this research provides a strong starting point on accelerated forgetting in healthy older people, more research replicating the findings is needed. Goldsmiths researchers would like clinicians and other researchers to use VALMT to see how the findings relate to performance on other clinical measures to evaluate the ‘added value’ of the test.

A report of the research, ‘Accelerated forgetting in healthy older samples: Implications for methodology, future ageing studies, and early identification of risk of dementia’ by Terence McGibbon, Ashok Jansari, Jessica Demirjian, Anna Nemes (Goldsmiths, University of London) and Adrian Opre is published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.