Mental imagery training improves multiple sclerosis patients' cognition

  • Difficulties in remembering past events and imagining future ones are often experienced by those with multiple sclerosis.
  • A trial involving patients with MS has found that training in mentally visualizing imaginery scenarios can improve their ability to recall past events.
  • Deficits in event memory and imagination have also been found in older adults, so this finding might have wider application.

Training in a mental imagery technique has been found to help multiple sclerosis patients in two memory domains often affected by the disease: autobiographical memory and episodic future thinking.

The study involved 40 patients with relapsing-remitting MS, all of whom were receiving regular drug therapy and all of whom had significant brain atrophy. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups, one of which received the imagery training (17 participants), while the other two were controls — a control receiving a sham verbal training (10) and a control receiving no training (13). The six training sessions lasted two hours and occurred once or twice a week.

The training involved:

  • mental visualization exercises of increasing difficulty, using 10 items that the patient had to imagine and describe, looking at both static aspects (such as color and shape) and an action carried out with the item
  • guided construction exercises, using 5 scenarios involving several characters (so, for example, the patient might start with the general idea of a cook preparing a meal, and be guided through more complexities, such as the type of table, the ingredients being used, etc)
  • self-visualization exercises, in which the patient imagined themselves within a scenario.

Autobiographical memory and episodic future thinking were assessed, before and after, using an adapted version of the Autobiographical Interview, which involves subjects recalling events from earlier periods in their life, in response to specific cue words. The events are supposed to be unique, and the subjects are asked to recall as many details as possible.

Only those receiving the training showed a significant improvement in their scores.

Those who had the imagery training also reported an increase in general self-confidence, with higher levels of control and vitality.

Remembering past events and imagining future ones are crucial cognitive abilities, with more far-reaching impacts than may be immediately obvious. For example, episodic future thought is important for forming and carrying out intentions.

These are also areas which may be affected by age. A recent study, for example, found that older adults are less likely to spontaneously acquire items that would later allow a problem to be solved, and are also less likely to subsequently use these items to solve the problems. An earlier study found that older adults have more difficulty in imagining future experiences.

These results, then, that show us that people with deficits in specific memory domains can be helped by specific training, is not only of interest to those with MS, but also more generally.



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Movements and images improve new vocabulary learning

  • Foreign words are learned better when gestures or pictures are used.
  • Imitating symbolic gestures is more beneficial than viewing illustrative pictures.
  • These benefits correlate with activity in specific brain regions.
  • The benefits are only found in translation tasks, not in free recall.

A small study using an artificial language adds to evidence that new vocabulary is learned more easily when the learner uses gestures.

“Vimmish”, the artificial language used in the study, follows similar phonetic rules to Italian. The German-speaking participants were given abstract and concrete nouns to learn over the course of a week. In the first experiment, the 21 subjects heard the words and their translations under one of three conditions:

  • with a video showing a symbolic gesture of the word's meaning, which they imitated
  • with a picture illustrating the word's meaning, which they traced in the air
  • with no gestures or pictures.

On the 8th day, the participants were tested while their brain activity was monitored. The test involved hearing the foreign word, then selecting the correct translation from four written options.

The researchers were interested in learning whether they could predict the learning condition from the brain activity patterns displayed when the participants were tested. They found that the gesture condition and control could be distinguished in two brain regions: a visual area that processes biological motion (part of the right superior temporal sulcus), and the left premotor cortex. Activity in these regions was also significantly correlated with performance. The picture condition and control could be distinguished in a visual area that processes objects (the right anterior lateral occipital cortex). There was a trend for this activity to correlate with performance, but it didn't reach significance.

Paper-and-pencil translation tests two and six months after learning showed that learning with gestures was significantly better than the other conditions. But note that there was no advantage for any condition in a free recall task.

A second experiment compared gesture and pictures in the more common picture scenario — participants only viewed the video or picture; there was no imitation. Unsurprisingly, there was no motor cortex involvement in this scenario: gesture and control conditions were distinguished only by activity in the biological motion part of the right superior temporal sulcus. The correlation of activity in the right anterior LOC with performance in the picture condition this time reached significance. But most importantly, this time the picture condition led to better translation accuracy than the other two conditions.

However, the most significant result is this: when both experiments were evaluated together, the gesture benefit in experiment 1 (when the participant copied the gesture) was greater than the picture benefit in the second experiment.

The findings are in keeping with other evidence that foreign words are learned more easily when multiple senses are involved.


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