gillian rowe

In 2009, Gillian Rowe was a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Toronto, looking at ways to help people hang on to those precious family histories, and the faces and names of beloved family members. To support her work, she was awarded the 2009 Firefly Spark Award.

Gillian’s earlier studies with healthy older adults have shown how our two memory systems work together. The explicit system holds the memories of people and events. The implicit system holds hidden or “process” memories.

Think of it this way. Do you ever wander around looking for your car keys? Struggle to think of the right word? Can’t recall what you had for lunch? The reality is that as you get older, some forgetfulness is natural. The fact that you know you can’t remember is actually using the hidden implicit memory system.

Finding out how these two systems work together could be good news for people with Alzheimer’s or other diseases that impair memory. While their problems with remembering the names of friends and family are obvious and amplified, using the unimpaired implicit memory system to shore up the faltering explicit system may actually help them remember longer.

In Gillian’s previous testing with healthy older adults, participants looked at simple line drawings on a computer screen and identified when one of the drawings was repeated exactly. Superimposed on the pictures were words or random letters. Participants were told to ignore the words and concentrate on the task, but later, they were often able to use those words to solve a problem, even though they couldn’t remember seeing them.

“It’s possible to stare at something and not notice it if you’re not paying attention to it,” Gillian explains. “But the information is processed and becomes part of our implicit memory system. We’re not aware that we’ve taken it in and processed it, but it’s there, and, under the right circumstances, can be beneficial at a later time.”

With the financial support of the Spark award, Gillian used the same testing method to verify that using the implicit systems will also work with people with critical memory impairment. Early results are promising. People with mild cognitive impairment are definitely using the implicitly presented information.

And the real benefit? Gillian is planning to put the research results to work in a practical application that will help people with Alzheimer’s disease recall personal events or what they will do in the future, such as taking medication. “That’s the exciting part of the research,” Gillian says. “Knowing that we can use the results to help people with memory impairment reminisce with their families about past events in their lives has a twofold benefit. Not only does it help the person with the disease retain memory as long as possible, but it also improves the quality of life of family members, who can be involved in the reminiscing.”

In fact, Gillian urges younger caregivers to become involved in the care of family members with the disease and educate themselves about early strategies and interventions. Brain games on the market may work for those who enjoy them.

But her best advice is to keep your mind active with novel activities that will engage you, from playing bridge to learning to play an instrument.