Professor T., a 78 year old former of English teacher who delighted generations of students with insight into Shakespeare’s puns and humor has been smearing his feces again. He neither knows why he smears nor does he remember the deed after the clean up. His wife, whose devoted care gives new meaning to the term “long-suffering”, is adrift in a sea of sadness, rage and despair.
Today, she is the patient, although her health is robust. “He doesn’t even remember me.” she grieves under her breath reflecting back in disbelief across a panoramic fifty years of loving companionship. “I am a complete stranger to him now”.
Why does Professor T. hit, swear at and occasionally bite is beloved wife? He acts this way because he is no longer himself; he has no memory. The total loss of memory is perhaps the most debilitating aspect Alzheimer’s disease, a senile dementia that can crack the most determined will and break the most loving caregiver’s heart.
Who are we without our memory? Try to imagine that scenario for a moment. I suspect you’ll find it entirely unimaginable. No sense of what’s past robs us of any sense of time itself as events lose all continuity when displaced from time. The amnestic him or herself is also lost in the chaos which is as infuriating as it is humiliating. While awareness of memory loss persists, that is. Without a memory and robbed of a sense of self we lose the opportunity for meaningful relationship with others and then, without social activity, we cease to exist.
What is memory? During a psychiatric mental status examination designed to determine cognitive function or competency three types of memory are plumbed. Short term memory (“Repeat these seven digits after me.“), intermediate term memory (“What did you have for lunch yesterday?”) and long-term memory (What was the name of your first grade teacher?”). This is perhaps only one side of the coin comprising as it does a quantification of memory.
In my clinical experience and drawing from Tibetan medicine, I think additionally in terms of three other types of memory each organ-ized in and by distinct body parts. The mind-memory located primarily in the hippocampus of the brain re-collects abstract facts and information. A second type of memory is revealed by our language to reside in rhythm. We call that memory reciting “by heart”. Many of us still don’t know our alphabet until we recite it in rhythmic song. We recall it from the heart, our source of rhythm. Thirdly, we all have experienced a metabolic or body-memory that insures against forgetting physical tasks like riding a bicycle or dancing the jitterbug. Another form of body-memory is perhaps better described as retention. Practitioners of therapeutic touch be it chiropractic, massage or physical therapy know that certain emotional experiences can be “frozen” into the body and only released with a concerted therapeutic effort. “Release phenomena” occur in the context of flashbacks and can prove tremendously curative. This is similar to an emotional catharsis accomplished through effective psychotherapy.
Why do we lose our memory? How can we protect our capacity to recall events and information? Fortunately, most of us have only laziness to blame for our bad memory. Quite simply, most cases of “poor memory” involve not using our capacity to its fullest. We don’t try hard enough. Memory, after all, can be considered a skill whereby “paying attention” reaps rewards. Thinking about something actually helps. Many “memory-enhancing” seminars actually work!
On the other hand, distraction – be it consequent to stress, depressed mood or any other form of chaos- can interfere with the storage of “data” resulting in the subsequent failure to retrieve what we try to remember. Poor memory, after all, is one of the principal symptoms of depression. This is because memory is “affect driven” meaning we remember what interests us and forget that which we don’t value. For example, many “important” husbands forget specific telephone numbers but (fortunately) are able to recall the name of their wife when calling out: “Honey, what is the Jones’s telephone number?” (Wives, it might be noted, tend to suffer periodic amnesia themselves, forgetting as they do their age…)
Note: Don’t be too quick to believe anyone who tells you that memory loss is a “normal part of aging”. We’re all designed to live full and vibrant lives eventually going out like a light bulb (ping!!), not fading like a dimmer switch with deteriorating capacities. Memory loss is abnormal and reveals one of the two following problems: The brain isn’t functioning properly because of either: 1) it’s not getting enough of something necessary for healthy tissue (deficiency of blood, oxygen, nutrients, neurotransmitters) or; 2) it’s getting too much of something (neurotoxins like heavy metals, alcohol or fat soluable pesticides).
Assuming you have exhausted the myriad of memory-enhancing tricks (associations, joggers, pneumonics) and you or your loved one simply have a failing memory due to organic problems, there are some treatments worth discussing with your doctor. The following treatments all work by either helping purge the nerves of toxins or by replenishing nutrients essential for our cognitive activity. Excellent research supports these claims. Let’s examine first the need for nerve detoxification.
A time proven memory remedy involves simply eliminating heavy metal toxins such as lead, mercury, tin, cadmium, nickel and aluminum all of which occur too commonly in our foods and all of which are known neurotoxins. (For example, aluminum concentration in tap water increases significantly after being boiled with acidic coffee grounds in an aluminum coffee pot.) Fortunately, these nerves can be revitalized through heavy metal chelation as well as by saturation by other less toxic minerals of similar valence (“molecular shape”) which displace the toxins from the nerves.
A more commonly experienced neurotoxin is alcohol which everyone knows effects memory in the following way: “Great party last night, dude! You were totally awesome!” To which the life of the party responds “What party??”
What these party animals don’t understand though is that alcohol is a severe brain toxin whereby excessive use can result in permanent brain damage (Remember alcohol is a preservative and can pickle your brain!)
Replenishment is an easier and less troublesome approach to memory enhancement. Not unreasonably, every part of our body (including the brain) works better with adequate inventory. One indisputable example of memory enhancement is pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) which helps memory by converting the B vitamin choline into acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter essential for efficient brain function.
In addition to vitamins like B5, a more exotic list of cerebroactive compounds known as nootropics (“smart drugs”) continue to demonstrate impressive memory-enhancing results in double-blinded placebo controlled scientific trials around the world. Exciting products include acetyl-L-carnitine (ALC facilitates transport of fat into mitochondria and acts as a neuro-protective and neuro-regenerative effect); dimethylaminoethanol (DMEA accelerates production of acetylcholine); Centrophenoxine (increases neuro-synapses, protects brain from hypoxemia); Gerovital (“GH-3” inhibits mono-amine oxidase enzyme and converts to the calming neurotransmitter para-aminobenzoic acid “PABA” and DMEA- like DEAE); Ginko biloba (the leaf extract increases blood flow to the brain, serves as an anti-oxidant and increases ATP energy); Ginsing (the root contains saponins which optimize neurotrtansmiters like serotonin and acetylcholine); Hydergine (from the fungus ergot acting to increase blood flow to the brain); Idebenone (a powerful antioxidant acting to increase energy in the form of ATP); Phenytoin (anti-seizure medication acts as a potent cell membrane stabilizer); Propranolol (blocks adrenalin thereby calming the thinker); Thyroid hormone (probably anti-depressant effect); Vasopressin (anti-diuretic hormone aids imprinting, retention and recall); Vincamine (a vasodilator from the periwinkle plant increases blood and oxygen flow to the brain), estrogen and DHEA (exciting research shows increased circulation for unknown reasons) and …yes, you knew it all along, caffeine!
However, before you go out and quaff even more coffee, let me hasten to add that a very important part of health is the principle of moderation. Therefore, if ten cups isn’t enhancing memory now, increasing your daily dose probably is not a good idea…
To your health!
Bradford S. Weeks, M.D. (c) 1994