California scientists launch study to test whether lockdowns have impacted memory

9 mins read


Since the pandemic began, have you forgotten someone’s name or struggled to remember a word to use in a sentence?

As it turns out, you may not be alone.

Researchers at the University of California Irvine (UCI) are launching a study to examine if lockdowns and stay-at-home orders have impacted memory.

The team believes that our repetitive schedules, due to being stuck inside, have affected the ability to recall recent events because day-to-day is hard to distinguish.

What’s more, not going outside is not allowing us to exercise the region of our brain associated with memory and can speed up the development of age-related brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

The University of California Irvine is launching a study to examine if coronavirus lockdowns and stay-at-home orders have impacted memory (file image)

The University of California Irvine is launching a study to examine if coronavirus lockdowns and stay-at-home orders have impacted memory (file image)

Dr Michael Yassa, director of the UCI Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, told The Wall Street Journal people use cues to form and recall memories. 

This is done with either a change of scenery or a new interaction so the person can anchor memories.

For example, walking into the break room of your office space may remind you of a memory that occurred there or of a task that needs to be performed.

But the monotony of working from home and having multiple similar online meetings makes it more difficult for our brains to correlate something that occurred with a specific date.  

Repeating stories also help us form episodic memories, which are events that happen to an individual specifically. 

However, lack of socializing doesn’t just not allow to tell these stories to other people, but you also don’t have as many stories to tell because there are no event to attend.     

That leads into the factor of isolation and loneliness.

As the proteins associated with diseases like dementia accumulate in the brain, our body tries to compensate by something called cognitive reserve.

This is the mind’s resistance to damage of the brain and it increases with an engaging lifestyle such as acquiring more education or social interaction. 

‘We need to have help people maintain brain health and keep your blood pressure controlled and eat well, but we also need to be stimulating the brain,’ Dr Peter Rabins, an Alzheimer’s disease expert at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, told AARP.

‘I think of loneliness as a kind of social deprivation. You’re depriving the brain of external emotional and social stimulation.’

PEOPLE ARE STARVING FOR PHYSICAL TOUCH AMID SOCIAL DISTANCING 

People are starving for physical touch as the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage on, and it’s beginning to take a real toll on physical and mental health.

With lockdowns, school closures and stay-at-home orders, many of us have not shaken hands or hugged another person in weeks, sometimes months.

Earlier this year, a survey found that more than three in five Americans are lonely, reporting feelings of being left out and and lacking companionship.

And while social media and socially distanced get-togethers can help people feel more connected, scientists say there is no replacement for touch. 

Humans are known to be social creatures. We crave togetherness – to be surrounded by friends and share our personal experiences with others. In fact, it’s been a key to our survival.  

‘Because of things like Zoom and Skype, we have the ability to see somebody else as well as converse and get a lot of the same signals as we would in a face-to-face conversation,’ Dr Kory Floyd, a professor at the University of Arizona who studies the communication of affection and its effects on stress, told DailyMail.com. 

‘What is missing is what we refer to as a sense of immediacy, a sense of presence you have with someone else when you can feel them in your space and touch.’  

Floyd says there are a few ‘imperfect’ things you can do if you are missing physical touch but don’t yet feel safe enough to do so.

He says that petting animals, be it your own cats and dogs, a neighbor’s or from a pet shelter, can help lower levels of stress hormones. 

Additionally, hugging something like a pillow with pressure can trick your brain into thinking that you are hugging a person. 

When people are isolated and alone, such as during this pandemic, this can lead to cognitive decline.

Additionally, several studies have shown that finding our way – no matter if it is getting lost or going home – exercises the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for memories and learning.

In fact, taxi drivers in London have been shown to have greater gray-matter volume in their hippocampi because they are required to memorize the city’s streets.

When we are sitting at home all day with no need to find our way anywhere, we lose some of that ability. 

Dr Yassa told The Jounral his team will look at how social isolation of the pandemic lockdown has affected memory, mood and emotions.

It will be offered to a wide range of participants, including people with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM).

HSAM is a rare is an extraordinary ability to recall specific details about memories.

When provided with a date, those with HSAM not only remember what they did but also what day of the week it fell on, what they wore, and even what the weather was. 

As it turns out, even people with superior memories have been forgetting things during lockdowns.   

Nicole Donohue, a teacher from Morris Township, New Jersey, told The Journal  she remembers what she ddi on August 16, 2010.

Donohue took Continental Airlines Flight 3151 – on which she had a Sprite – to Knoxville, Tennessee. 

She said that she even remembers talking to two children sitting near her on the plane about wanting to go swimming when they landed. 

But the recent date of April 6?  

‘Actually, I cannot remember too many specific details about it’ she told The Journal.

Lockdowns have also affected people suffering from memory disorders such as Alzheimer’s.

The Alzheimer’s Society in the UK found that out of about 2,000 people affected by dementia, more than 80 percent reported worsening symptoms.

Half of participants reported a decline in memory.

Dr Catherine Loveday, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Westminster, told the BBC that there are things that can be done to stimulate the brain.

For example, she suggests going for a walk on streets that are unfamiliar to make the brain concentrate more.

If you are unable to go outside, Loveday also recommends trying a new activity at home and then telling someone after you’re done to help you remember. 

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