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Thursday, July 13, 2017

A Possible Remedy for Depression

In the United States, some 5-7% of the population is clinically depressed in any given year. Over a lifetime, there are high odds that each of us has been depressed at some point. Sadly for seniors, the likelihood can increase with age.
A new treatment approach that combines mindfulness meditation and aerobic exercise seems promising. In a recent study, 22 clinically diagnosed patients with major depressive disorder were put on a treatment regimen that begins with 30 minutes of mindfulness meditation and is followed by 30 minutes of aerobic exercise. Thirty people without depression symptoms served as a comparison group. In the meditation session, patients were told to focus on the present moment and their slow, deep breathing and excluding all mind-wandering and intrusive thoughts. Exercise was on a treadmill or stationary bicycle.
At the end of eight weeks, patients were assessed again for depression symptoms, and symptoms decreased on average by 40%. An electrically evoked brain-wave response characteristic of executive control function was notably increased in the clinically depressed group.
Like any illness, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In the case of depression, two approaches can help. The first and foremost is to live a life of worthy purpose that gives life meaning and genuine pleasure. It is hard to be depressed when you believe that you make a positive difference in the lives of others. Of course, your efforts will fail from time to time, and people will not always value your efforts on their behalf. But you can take comfort in knowing that you mean well and are on the right track.
The second approach is to avoid the cues that remind you of negative. I have written several related posts at this archived site ( "depression" in the search field at upper right). I have argued that continual rehearsal of negative emotions, which can be done explicitly or implicitly, is the driver of clinical depression. As a neuroscientist, I know that rehearsal of thoughts and feelings strengthens the mediating synapses and circuits. Consciously rehearsing bad events and our depressive response cements depression in neural circuitry.
So, it would seem important to focus on ways to block the retrieval cues. One solution that sometimes works is to change environments. Even if you don’t know what the depression cues are, you know they can somehow be embedded in the current environment and lifestyle. Maybe the problem is with some of the people you run around with. People who drag you down are not all that hard to spot. Avoid them. Maybe the problem is with your career or work environment, which has saddled you with too many depressing experiences. Staying in that environment assures that depression triggering cues will be encountered again.
It is not always feasible to change dealings with certain people, or the environment or lifestyle. You may not be able to change jobs or careers for economic or other practical reasons. In those cases, it helps to promote recall of happy experiences as a substitute.
Common experience and a great deal of formal research have shown the usefulness of “happy thoughts” as a way to boost positive mood. Here, the trick is to enhance recall of the buried memories of happy experiences. The same neural mechanisms involved in rehearsal and recall of depressing experiences are involved. Triggers that recall happy experiences do so at the expense of triggers that would trigger depressive feelings.
Recent research emphasizes the importance of memory as therapy for depression. Depressed patients were trained to use one or the other of two memory techniques for strengthening the memory of happy events in their lives. Both memorization methods were equally effective when recall was tested right after the training. But a week later, experimenters made a surprise phone call to each patient and asked them to recall the happy thoughts again. This time, clearly better recall occurred in the patients who had used the method-of-loci method. If we can generalize these results, it means that patients can alleviate their depression if they train their brains to be more effective at remembering positive events. Your life should be more satisfying and less depressing when you consciously train your brain to remember the good times.


Alderman, B. L. et al. (2016). MAP training: combining meditation and aerobic exercise reduces depession and rumination while enhancing synchronized brain activity. Transl. Psychiatry. 6(e276). doi: 10.1038/tp.2015.225

Dalgleish, T. et al. (2013). Method-of_Loci as a mnemonic device to facilitate access to self-affirming personal memories for individuals with depression. Clinical Psychological Science. Feb. 12, DOI: 10.1177/21677026112468111.

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Monday, July 03, 2017

Memory Training Produces Lasting Effects

I first got interested in memory training at age 15 when my dad was a salesman for the Dale Carnegie leadership course, which included a section on memory training. My dad taught me some tricks that enabled me to memorize the gist of what was on every page of a magazine, by page number, in 30 minutes. I used to put on demonstrations for prospective enrollees. Before the recruitment meeting started, the leader would tell the audience, "Everybody see Billy here. Stand up Billy. I am going to give him this latest magazine issue, which he has never seen, and let him study it for 30 minutes. Then we will interrupt the meeting and you can ask him what is on any given page. Or you can tell him what is on a page, and he can tell you the page number." To my own astonishment, I could do it and it was not that hard. The basic gimmick was first to memorize a number code that converted page numbers into a visual image. For example, the code for 20 was "noose," as in a hangman's noose. Then I would convert the content on page 20 to an image or image series that captured the gist of the content. Then I would link the page-code image and the content image. For example, if the content on page 20 was about Elvis joining the army and his boot camp experiences, I would picture Elvis, guitar and costume, being trucked off in a military truck to a boot camp, where they put him through gymnastic exercises, marching, and simulated combat, and then they hung him. This idea and many other mnemonic devices are explained more fully in my book, Memory Power 101.
At the time, I wondered if this kind of mental exercise would have some sort of spill-over, lasting effect. Hopefully, it would help me in school. I think it did (I never made less than an A), but I never had an objective way to verify that.
Most readers have probably heard about "memory athletes," people who use mental imaging mnemonic devices to accomplish astonishing feats of memory. Such athletes can, for example, memorize in five minutes 550 words or the sequence of four shuffled decks of cards.
Until now, there were few studies of whether the brains of such athletes are changed in any lasting way by the memory training.
One indication of lasting change had been reported in London taxi drivers who were revealed by brain scans to have an enlarged hippocampus, a large paired structure in the brain that forms memories and also maps spatial locations (London streets are convoluted in their layout and notoriously difficult to learn).
A more direct test of brain change has been recently reported. In the first experiment, 23 of the top 50 world-ranked memory athletes were compared with control normals of similar age, gender and IQ.  Brains were scanned in all subjects under two conditions: first, while they were relaxed and letting their minds wander, and second, while they were trying to memorize a list of 72 words.
Not surprisingly, the memory champions missed only two words on average when recalling the list 20 minutes later, whereas their controls missed nearly half. The brain scans revealed patterns of connectivity among various brain regions in the memory champions.
Investigators then wanted to know if memory training of the controls would produce lasting changes in them. Thus, the controls were separated into three groups: one was asked to practice the Method of Loci memory technique for half an hour every day for a total of six weeks. A second group practiced a very challenging working-memory task, the dual N-back, in which they had to memorize a sequence of spoken words while paying attention to the locations of a moving square on the computer screen, and identify when a letter or position matches one that appeared earlier. The last group just lived their normal life without memory training for the test period of six weeks.
When tested right after training on memorizing a random list of words, only the Method of Loci group showed improved memory. Comparison of brain scans before and after the six weeks revealed connectivity changes, much like those of memory champions. Also, the change in connectivity was a reliable predictor how well they performed in the memory test. Moreover, the connectivity changes and improved memory ability persisted for at least four months afterwards.
The authors of the study report could not explain why dual N-back training had no lasting effect (other than getting better at N-back tests), as might be expected because it is a very demanding task. But I think the reason is that N-back training involves a different aspect of memory that does not generalize to memorizing word lists.
Anyway, I feel better now that my memory experiences at 16 have served me well in the succeeding years. This is consistent with what I had learned about neuroplasticity as an adult neuroscientist: the brain has to change to store what you learn in memory. How that happens is explained in another book of mine, Mental Biology.


Dresler, M., et al (2017). Mnemonic training reshapes brain networks to support superior memory. Neuron, 93: 1-9.

Klemm, W. R. (2012) Memory Power 101. New York: Skyhorse.

Klemm, W. R. (2014). Mental Biology: The New Science of How the Brain and Mind Relate. New York: Prometheus.

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