Study: Patients with amnesia still feel emotions, despite memory loss

April 12, 2010

A new University of Iowa study offers some good news for caregivers and loved ones of individuals with Alzheimer's disease. Patients might forget a joke or a meaningful conversation -- but even so, the warm feelings associated with the experience can stick around and boost their mood.

For the study, published this week in the Early Edition of the , researchers showed individuals with clips of happy and sad movies. Although the participants couldn't recall what they had watched, they retained the emotions elicited by the clips.

Justin Feinstein, lead study author and a student in the UI graduate programs of neuroscience and psychology, says the discovery has direct implications for Alzheimer's disease.

"A simple visit or phone call from family members might have a lingering positive influence on a patient's happiness even though the patient may quickly forget the visit or phone call," said Feinstein, a doctoral student in clinical neuropsychology. "On the other hand, routine neglect from staff at nursing homes may leave the patient feeling sad, frustrated and lonely even though the patient can't remember why."

Feinstein conducted the study with UI neuroscience faculty members Daniel Tranel, Ph.D., UI professor of neurology and psychology, and Melissa Duff, Ph.D., UI assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders.

The researchers studied five rare neurological patients with damage to their , a part of the brain that's critical for transferring short-term memories into long-term storage. Damage to the hippocampus causes new memories to disappear. This same type of is an early sign of Alzheimer's disease.

The experiment started with an emotion-induction technique using powerful film clips. Each amnesic patient viewed 20 minutes of either sad or happy movies on separate days. The movies triggered the appropriate emotion, ranging from intense bouts of laughter during happy films to tears of sorrow during sad ones.

About 10 minutes after the clip ended, researchers gave patients a memory test to see if they could recall what they had watched. As expected, the patients were extremely impaired. A healthy person recalls about 30 details from each clip, but one patient couldn't recall a single detail.

After the memory test, patients answered questions to gauge their emotions.

"Indeed, they still felt the emotion. Sadness tended to last a bit longer than happiness, but both emotions lasted well beyond their memory of the films," Feinstein said. "With healthy people, you see feelings decay as time goes on. In two patients, the feelings didn't decay; in fact, their sadness lingered."

These findings challenge the popular notion that erasing a painful memory can abolish psychological suffering. They also reinforce the importance of attending to the emotional needs of people with Alzheimer's, which is expected to affect as many as 100 million people worldwide by 2050.

"Age is the greatest risk factor for Alzheimer's, and there's currently no cure," Feinstein said. "What we're about to face is an epidemic. We're going to have more and more baby boomers getting older, and more and more people with Alzheimer's disease. The burden of care for these individuals is enormous.

"What this research suggests is that we need to start setting a scientifically-informed standard of care for patients with memory disorders. Here is clear evidence showing that the reasons for treating Alzheimer's patients with respect and dignity go beyond simple human morals."

More information: Paper: www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.0914054107

Related Stories

Recommended for you

How the shape and size of your face relates to your sexuality

September 19, 2017
Men and women with shorter, wider faces tend to be more sexually motivated and to have a stronger sex drive than those with faces of other dimensions. These are the findings from a study led by Steven Arnocky of Nipissing ...

Behavioral therapy increases connectivity in brains of people with OCD

September 19, 2017
UCLA researchers report that people with obsessive-compulsive disorder, when treated with a special form of talk therapy, demonstrate distinct changes in their brains as well as improvement in their symptoms.

Cognitive scientists find that people can more easily communicate warmer colors than cool ones

September 18, 2017
The human eye can perceive millions of different colors, but the number of categories human languages use to group those colors is much smaller. Some languages use as few as three color categories (words corresponding to ...

Why bad sleep doesn't always lead to depression

September 18, 2017
Poor sleep is both a risk factor, and a common symptom, of depression. But not everyone who tosses and turns at night becomes depressed.

People with schizophrenia have threefold risk of dying

September 18, 2017
People with schizophrenia are three times more likely to die, and die younger, than the general population, indicating a need for solutions to narrow this gap, according to research published in CMAJ (Canadian Medical Association ...

Happiness is not determined by childhood biomarkers

September 18, 2017
Happiness is not determined by childhood biological markers such as height or body fat, according to a team of European researchers involving UCL.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.