Recovering Memory: Can a New Device Help Amnesia Patients?

Can a new device help amnesia patients outsource memory?

  • Image from the Sensecam.

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    "It gives me a sense of belonging," Claire says. "So many people know so many things about my life, and I haven't any idea whatsoever. But I have these pictures now."

    Of more interest to neuropsychologists is the fact that reviewing Sensecam images seems to stimulate what little remains of Claire's episodic memory. Emma Berry, a neuropsychologist at Microsoft, the company that developed the camera, hypothesizes that Sensecam's impromptu wide-angle photographs, which capture everything in Claire's field of vision, provide much stronger memory cues than staged, traditionally proportioned pictures. Even in healthy brains, episodic memory often responds to bizarre, seemingly extraneous stimuli. Episodic memory is, in the words of American writer and physician Austin O'Malley, "a crazy woman that hoards colored rags and throws away food."

    Without recognition, Claire often passes over frames that include her close friends, but a tiny detail from a seemingly meaningless frame — a sign on a wall, perhaps, or the fact that a waiter was left-handed — triggers her memory of that moment. Functional-MRI scans of Claire's brain show that the areas associated with memory light up with far greater activity when she tries to remember experiences previously reviewed on Sensecam than when she attempts to recall events recorded in her diary or by traditional photographs.

    Microsoft has licensed British company Vicon to sell Sensecam as a medical device, but there may be a bigger market than just amnesiacs. Berry believes that since Alzheimer's disease targets the hippocampi and nearby structures first, these cameras may provide a prophylactic for people at risk of the disease by keeping their hippocampi healthy longer, though she says more research is needed.

    Not all experts share Berry's enthusiasm. The University of Cambridge's Barbara Wilson, a leading amnesia expert who has co-authored a study using a Sensecam, says that for brain-injury patients, the mantra must always be "rehabilitation is not synonymous with recovery." The device "can help people cope," she says, "but there's no evidence it can restore episodic memory." Dr. Gregory O' Shanick, national medical director for the Brain Injury Association of America, worries that if Microsoft "markets it as a panacea, we are going to disappoint patients or, worse, make them feel as if there is something deficient in them."

    For her part, Claire prizes her Sensecam and says she would feel bereft without it. When I met with her, she searched through dozens of Sensecam photos from a recent day out in London, her eyes scanning longingly for the familiar. Images that a healthy-brained individual would recognize immediately — like a direct shot of a close friend — passed by unnoted. But then suddenly Claire had one of what Martin Conway, a neuropsychologist at Leeds University who works with her, calls her "Proustian moments." Marcel Proust described memory as a "rope let down from heaven to draw one up from the abyss of unbeing." When Claire glanced at an otherwise unremarkable picture of her close friend Carole drinking at a pub in St. Pancras train station, whatever electrical impulse or neurotransmission that ties an individual to Claire coursed through her brain, and she sat up straight and started talking quickly about how, yes, she was texting her husband from the pub at the time! Texting him to say that she was sitting near the champagne bar at the station and that she remembered he took her there once for a surprise date and how happy it made her and that, yes, Ed! She remembers!

    As Claire's gaze lingered on the screen, her eyes moistened, and it was clear that memory's great gift — the cerebral shooting stars that illuminate the past out of darkness — had allowed her, for a few moments at least, to suddenly know herself.

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