Our research in the Memory Lab investigates a wide range of research topics relating to memory and memory-related functions in human health and disease. You can read brief summaries of some of our major research topics below as a taster of the type of research that we are involved in. Please visit our publications page for a detailed list of our Lab's published research articles, book chapters etc. If you are interested in volunteering for our research, you can find more information by clicking here.
Take a moment to imagine a life without memory. You would remain trapped in the present, unable to relive recent events, recall recent conversations with friends, or recognise the faces of loved ones. With no cures available as yet, this is the reality faced by people with Alzheimer’s disease who are deprived of this pivotal memory ability. How does this severe memory impairment occur, how can it be eased, and how does it differ from the ‘normal’ forgetting experienced by healthy older people? Our research addresses these fundamental questions by developing new methods to examine and measure memory impairment and improvement in older adults with and without Alzheimer's Disease.
Developing memory interventions: post-study awake quiescence benefits memory in people with and without Alzheimer's Disease
Research indicates that when a new memory is formed, it is relatively fragile and vulnerable to disruption. Consolidation is the process that strengthens new fragile memories over time. Our research has shown that if a person experiences a brief period of awake quiescence in the minutes that follow new learning, they typically retain more detailed memories than those who experience ongoing sensory input via an ongoing task (e.g. playing a spot-the-difference game). This effect is often observable after 10-30 minutes of initial learning, but is also long lasting. For example, work from our lab has shown that if participants’ memory for learned items is again tested after 7 days, those who experienced awake quiescence in the minutes that followed learned demonstrate superior recall than those who experienced ongoing sensory input. These findings show that the few minutes that immediately follow new learning are especially important for the long-term retention of new memories.
This appears especially true for people with memory impairments associated with Alzheimer's Disease. Specifically, we have shown that whilst the magnitude of the awake quiescence effect remains relatively stable in normal ageing, people with memory impairments associated with Alzheimer's Disease show more striking benefits from post-study awake quiescence, where some people with this condition show remarkable improvements in memory retention if they quiet rest in the minutes that follow new learning. This suggests that some people with memory impairment might have a preserved ability to retain new memories if the behavioural conditions that follow new learning are conducive for consolidation. Much of our research is investigating exactly why post-study awake quiescence is so beneficial to the retention of new memories, especially in people with memory impairments. To do this, we are using a range of sensitive memory tests and, in some cases, using immersive virtual realy methods to probe the effect of different 'real-world' environments on memory consolidation. This work will help us to deliver memory interventions that can support a person's memory, independance, and wellbeing.
How are new memories processed in the brain?
There is a growing body of evidence in rodents and humans that suggests that the brain consolidates (strengthens and integrates) new memories by ‘replaying’ them in the brain. This is where electical activity in the brain during initial learning spontaneously reappears in the minutes to hours that follow learning. The amount of this 'replay' is found to predict subsequent memory recall, suggesting that it is an important process in the consolidation of new memories. Importantly, this 'replay' is found to occur especially during post-study periods of sleep and awake quiescence, indicating that these behavioural states are especially conducive to memory consolidation and remembering. These findings parallel with our own work in the Memory Lab, where we find that a brief period of post-study awake quiescence typically results in superior memory retention. One of our working hypotheses is that awake quiescence might be so beneficial to memory because it is conducive to processes such as the ‘replay’ of new memories in the brain. We are investigating this interesting hypothesis using a range of sensitive memory tests and electroencephalogram (EEG) methods.
For more information on our collaborative research on aphantasia please see here and here If you would like to contribute to a collaborative research study led by our University of Exeter Medical School colleagues, then please click here to complete the Vidness of Vivid Imagery Questionnaire (VVIQ) for a study being conducted by our colleagues in Exeter.
How do we find our way in new and familiar environments?
Some of our research investigates the role of memory in how we navigate new and familiar environments. We have recently shown that a brief period of post-navigation awake quiescence supports the retention of new visual-spatial memories pertaining to the navigated space. In addition, using more high-spec virtual reality methods, we have found that post-navigation awake quiescence results in the formation of a more accurate mental ('cognitive') map of a navigated virtual town environment, and, in some cases, the accuracy of this mental map is more accurate after 10 minutes than immediately after navigation. These findings suggest a time-related improvement in the accuracy of mental maps. We hypothesise that this effect is due to consolidation during awake quiescence supporting the integration of new spatial memories into an accurate mental map of the navigated virtual town. These findings provide possible opportunities for interventions to support memory and navigation in the real-world. For example, might a brief period of rest after navigating a new care home be beneficial for a person's ability to subsequently successfully navigate the new space? We are exploring several interesting pathways that could lead to real-world impact relating to this research topic. To do this, we are using a range of sensitive memory tests, questionnaires, and virtual reality methods (e.g. immersive head-mounted displays) to investigate peoples' memory and navigation abilities.
Are there possible differences in memory between hearing and deaf individuals?
Research suggests that lack or loss of a sensory modality can give rise to ‘gains’ in other sensory modalities. For example, some studies indicate that blind people perform better than sighted people on tasks assessing auditory and tactile function, as well as verbal memory. Similarly, deaf people have been shown to outperform hearing people on tasks that assess visual attention and discrimination. Together, these findings demonstrate a level of cognitive flexibility that can result in actual improvements in at least some cognitive functions. However, it remains unknown whether enhancements in the visual modality in deaf people extend to visual memory abilities. In this research, we have brought together an interdisciplinary team to examine this important question and are using a range of sensitive memory tests and questionnaires to probe memory in deaf and hearing people. The outcomes of this project can provide new insights into visual memory abilities in deaf and hearing individuals, the use of compensatory strategies, and cognitive flexibility more generally.