How Working Memory Is Affected by Alzheimer's Disease

Sometimes referred to as intermediate memory, the working memory may be thought of as a temporary storage bin for information that is needed to complete a specific task. Some researchers feel that working memory significantly overlaps with short-term memory and might even argue that they're the same thing. However, the term working memory in research generally seems to imply the ability not only to remember information for a period of time but also to use, manipulate and apply it, perhaps while also accessing other stored pieces of information.

Grandfather solving jigsaw puzzle with grandson in living room at home
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According to Smith and Kosslyn in Cognitive Psychology, working memory is like a blackboard where you put information, move it around and use it, and then erase it and go on to the next task.

An example of using working memory as described by Smith and Kosslyn is where you are participating in a discussion and you think of a comment you want to make. You have to wait until there's a pause in the conversation so that you won't interrupt someone else. You also need to listen to the debate so that you can adequately respond to the comments the other persons are making, all while not forgetting how you're going to present your own point.

The Baddeley-Hitch Model of Working Memory

The Baddeley-Hitch model of working memory suggests that there are two components of working memory:

  • Visuospatial Scratchpad- a place where you store visual and spatial information
  • Phonological Loop- a place where you record auditory information

A third part, the central executive, is the controller and mediator of these two different aspects of our working memory. According to Baddeley and Hitch, the central executive processes information, directs attention, sets goals, and makes decisions.

How Do Alzheimer's and Other Kinds of Dementia Affect Working Memory?

A study conducted by Kensinger, et al. researched working memory and how it is affected by Alzheimer's. They concluded that working memory is reduced in Alzheimer's and that one of the reasons for this decline is the effect of Alzheimer's on semantic memory. Semantic memory is the ability to understand and recognize words. Since language processing may be slower in Alzheimer's, working memory (which uses our stored memories) may also be impaired.

Another study conducted by Gagnon and Belleville measured working memory by assessing participants' ability to retain numbers. They found that working memory is reduced in people with mild cognitive impairment in comparison to those with normal cognitive functioning, and further reduced in people who have Alzheimer's disease.

Can You Improve Your Working Memory If You Have Alzheimer's Disease?

Possibly. A research study by Huntley, Bor, Hampshire, Owen, and Howard demonstrated that people with early stage (mild) Alzheimer's were able to learn, use and benefit from chunking—a method where a person groups (chunks) material together to make it easier to remember.

Some people also experience a temporary improvement in their memory through the use of medications to treat Alzheimer's disease.

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By Esther Heerema, MSW
Esther Heerema, MSW, shares practical tips gained from working with hundreds of people whose lives are touched by Alzheimer's disease and other kinds of dementia.