Jul 12, 2014

Perception, Loss of Memory, and the Brain

Alzheimer’s Disease plays serious havoc with the hippocampus causing it to shrink. This hippocamal atrophy leads to memory impairment and memory loss.

By Elaine C Pereira
Alzheimer's Reading Room

The premise of the TNT series Perception surrounds  Dr. Daniel Pierce, a brilliant schizophrenic neuropsychiatrist. Because of his precise powers of observation and deduction he serves as a consultant for the FBI.

Brain Memory Alzheimer's | Alzheimer's Reading Room

In a recent episode Dr. Pierce’s character describes memory beautifully.
"The brain stores memories in different ways. Short term memory, where you left your keys…are managed by the hippocampus. But the hippocampus doesn’t keep them for long. It kicks them out to the cortex where they strengthen or weaken depending on how often you visit them.

Every time you access a memory, neurons are activated and that memory grows stronger.

But ignore a memory too long and you may loose it forever…
Even for all its incredible power, that tangled mass of neurons that you call your brain is a remarkably fragile organ. Take it out of its bone helmet and it’s just Jello vulnerable to the slightest wound…"
The hippocampus, by the way, is a seahorse shaped formation in the brain that is involved in the establishment of new memories and consolidating information from short to long-term memory.

In Alzheimer’s disease the hippocampus is one of the first regions of the brain to
suffer damage; memory loss and disorientation are included among the early symptoms.

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Traditional Memory

To shore up important or quasi-important information like your boss’s spouse’s name, repeating it either silently or out loud helps to reinforce memory and recall. If that memory is not used again it certainly will fade away in the future. Your new garage door code however if reused repeatedly, solidifying the memory in your cortex.

Sounds benign enough, right? Not so fast! Some recollections of relatively little significance are embedded in cement and may never fade away.

Enter, the Adrenaline Rush

I can vividly recall every detail right down to the boring, sage green institutional wallpaper in my OB/GYN’s office the day I found out I was having twins. That was 36 years ago in real time and yesterday in my brain.

From the moment the receptionist saw me, to being ushered down the hall, to the sign she scribbled with the word TWINS that she not so discreetly held up for the doctor to read, to the non verbal head nods and smiles shared between various staff and finally the exact moment after sitting down in his office when he uttered the words “The ultrasound shows you are having twins.”

My memory of that day and especially those 15 minutes is chiseled in my cortex! I can still play it out in my head.

It’s understandable that literally five days before they were born and I found out there were two, was an experience I’m not likely to forget. This unexpected news had a lifelong impact! But depending on how old you are, you remember the events of 911, where you were when the space shuttle exploded or when Kennedy was shot.

However horrifically tragic these events do not impact our lives as directly, so why exactly do we remember them?


“Professor of neurobiology James McGaugh, University of California at Irvine, is credited with the research that Adrenaline is the glue for long-term memory, it makes our brain remember better. If you recall being rejected, insulted, threatened or failing, you can still retrieve those memories because of Adrenaline. Memory and Adrenalin.

Adrenaline is released in the “Flight or Fight” scenario where we face fear, trauma, stress, shock; your heart may race or you just stop whatever you’re doing to process gut wrenching news and wonderful surprises!

Alzheimer’s Changes

Alzheimer’s Disease plays serious havoc with the hippocampus causing it to shrink. Because of this hippocampal atrophy, indications of memory impairments are often early symptoms of Alzheimer’s.

And the cortex steadily shrivels up too with Alzheimer’s, damaging the precious areas involved in thinking, planning and remembering.

These pathological changes destroy the very essence of the individual by robbing them of the memories that has made up their entire life. It trusts them into a “reality (that is) anything but real.” (I Will Never Forget, Chapter 38 Houdini Mom) Judgment, rational thinking, personality and everything else that defines and separates one person from another, dissolves.

As their “cups” topple over in emptiness, everyone must show patience, and bring a mop too if necessary.

I Will Never Forget

If you’re reading this post, you know exactly what I mean. Like you, I’ve lived the very real, very ugly, very powerful journey of accompanying my mom through Alzheimer’s.

But I love this line from the song by 3.8 Special. It helped me get through the roughest days.

“Hold on loosely but don’t let go.”

Elaine C Pereira, is the Award Winning author of the Best Selling memoir, I will Never Forget: A Daughter's Story of Her Mother's Arduous and Humorous Journey Through Dementia.

Original content the Alzheimer's Reading Room