Mimicking movements could help Alzheimer's rehabilitation

Cross-section of a brain affected by Alzheimer's disease

While our understanding of Alzheimer's disease is constantly evolving and improving, there's still currently no way to prevent or cure the condition. It is, however, believed to be possible for patients to benefit from rehabilitation efforts. One such method for helping to regain lost abilities is through imitating movements, a new study has shown.

When you're growing up, you learn actions from your mother or father by copying what he or she does. In a similar way, it's believed that Alzheimer's patients are able to voluntarily imitate movements, and it's possible that they could relearn actions that the disease has made it difficult to perform.

When beginning the study, the team, led by researchers from the University of Genoa, wasn't certain that the hardwired learning function of the brain would still be operating normally for patients. But as the work progressed, it became apparent that the disease – at least in its mild stages – hadn't damaged the function, with patients able to mimic a simple gesture, copying either a person or a moving dot on a computer screen.

The testing also revealed that while it was possible for a patient to learn from a computer, a human teacher is preferable. According to lead researcher Dr. Ambra Bisio, the emotional response of the patient when interacting with another person is more significant than the distraction that their presence causes.

Even as we edge closer to a cure for the debilitating condition, treatments such as this will likely still form an important part of treatment. At the very least, the knowledge that Alzheimer's sufferers can still learn from the people around them is a promising, and for the loved ones of patients, perhaps comforting fact.

"Because Alzheimer's damages the parts of the brain that link motor and cognitive function, behavioral treatments will still be important for patients, even after pharmaceutical treatments are discovered," said Dr. Bisio.

The findings of the work are published online in Frontiers of Aging Neuroscience.


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