People with Alzheimer's can remember emotions even if they cannot remember why. In a study at the University of Iowa, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers showed individuals with memory loss clips of happy and sad movies. Although the participants couldn't recall what they had watched, they retained the emotions elicited by the clips.
"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 the lead author, Justin Feinstein. "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."
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. Even though the patients could not remember any details from the movies, the emotional impact lingered.
"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." University of Iowa press release, Apr 12