Alzheimer’s patients’ joy may linger despite memory loss

In a small American study, Alzheimer’s patients felt sad or happy long after viewing video clips designed to induce those emotions, and long after having forgotten details of the videos or ever having seen them.

The research team says the results show that loved ones and caregivers need to foster positive emotional experiences for Alzheimer’s patients, even if they think the person won’t remember it later. “We might think our actions don’t have an effect because the person might not remember us or what we did — let’s say they may not remember that we bought them their favourite ice cream or that we showed them their favourite movie or that we screamed at them, but it is important, it is having an effect,” said Edmarie Guzmán-Vélez, a psychology researcher at the University of Iowa who led the study.

“They might not be able to tell you what happened but the emotions that those actions elicited are still there.”

In 2010, her co-authors found that people with neurological damage in the memory centre of the brain, the hippocampus, could still feel emotions related to an experience even if they couldn’t remember the experience itself.

Since emotions and the thoughts that ‘make’ us feel them — such as sadness at the loss of a relationship — often seem inseparable, the study team wanted to see if emotional processing independent of memory was also happening in Alzheimer’s patients.

As reported online in Cognitive and Behavioural Neurology, Guzmán-Vélez and her colleagues enrolled 17 people with early Alzheimer’s disease and 17 healthy people of similar age. The researchers asked the participants to say how they felt “right now, at the present moment”, before watching a series of eight scenes from films and television shows designed to induce sadness. Participants could indicate, for example, whether they felt happy, very happy, sad, very sad, and so on.

The participants were asked about their emotions again as soon as the video clips ended. Then, about five minutes later, the researchers gave the participants a memory test to see if they could recall what they had just seen.

The participants answered similar questions two more times — about 15 minutes and 30 minutes after the movies ended.

The researchers gave the participants a five-minute break and then repeated the experiment with clips designed to induce happiness.

The Alzheimer’s patients remembered much less about the films compared to the healthy participants. Four patients were unable to recall any facts about the sad films, and one patient didn’t even remember watching any sad movies.

However, both groups reported similar levels of sadness that lasted up to 30 minutes after watching the movies, including three of the four patients who could not remember any details.

The researchers also discovered that the less Alzheimer’s patients remembered about the films, the longer their sadness lasted. The results were similar with the happy movies, but on average, the effects didn’t appear to last quite as long. “I really hope that caregivers get the message,” Guzmán-Vélez said.

She said it could become frustrating at times and caregivers felt like they’re doing a lot of things and sometimes it doesn’t matter.

“But it really does matter and every single thing that they do may be having an impact on the person and it matters — it’s important,” Guzmán-Vélez said.


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