Every day, Ron Grant loses a small part of who he once was — and what he was able to do — to Alzheimer's disease.
Now, University of Oklahoma researchers say they've found a way to give patients like Grant a chance to regain a part of what they've lost.
Grant, 60, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease about five years ago. A retired prison chaplain, he said the diagnosis was more devastating because it came at such a young age.
Although he's still able to speak eloquently about the disease and how he copes with it, Grant said he's lost a certain amount of independence since his diagnosis. That's what life is like for most Alzheimer's patients, he said.
“Every day ... we're losing more and more of who we were and what we could do,” he said. “Some days are a lot worse than others. Some days, we don't notice any change.”
Researchers from the OU Health Sciences Center are developing a new type of therapy to help patients regain some of that independence. OU researchers developed a technique designed to preserve cognitive function in dementia patients. Now, they plan to take that technique into patients' homes.
It involves walking the patient through a task over and over for hours at a time, strengthening the patient's memory for that particular skill, said Carrie Ciro, the project's principal investigator.
During the first study, researchers brought participants into a lab that had been set up like a home. Researchers walked the participants through certain tasks, in some cases guiding their hands, again and again for three hours a day, five days a week for five weeks.
After the five-week period, participants showed improvement in their ability to perform those tasks, Ciro said. When researchers checked in with the participants after 90 days, that improvement remained, she said.
Reason for success
The reason for that success is that the technique uses a different type of memory from the one Alzheimer's patients typically lose early in the course of the disease, Ciro said. The first type of memory Alzheimer's patients generally lose is called declarative memory, the type of memory responsible for keeping track of names, dates and appointments.
But procedural memory generally stays intact for longer, Ciro said. Procedural memory keeps track of everyday, repetitive tasks like getting dressed, setting the table or making a sandwich, she said.
Although procedural memory isn't lost as quickly, Ciro said, many people with dementia stop doing the everyday tasks they did before they were diagnosed, in some cases because their caregivers or family members start to take over chores. Helping people with dementia keep their procedural memory strong could allow them to live at home for longer, she said.
Ciro said she hopes participants in the second phase will be able to pick up skills more quickly and retain them longer, because they won't have to transfer the skills from the lab to their homes.
Grant, who participated in the first study, said he's hopeful about the improvements Alzheimer's patients like himself will see. Much attention has been paid to finding a cure for the disease, he said, but the new technique offers people who have dementia now a chance at independence.
“She is trying to give us something today that we can use,” Grant said. “Instead of losing, we're kind of fighting back.”