Academic Header 1 - 2015
Delving deep into memories

Spartanburg's Memory Walk, the yearly fundraising event for the local chapter of the Alzheimer's Association, will take place Saturday at Wofford College. Registration is at 9 a.m., and the walk starts at 10 a.m. Visit www.GoUpstate.comfor a link to information on how to raise money for your participation in the walk. All proceeds will go to the local chapter to maintain its programs that help caregivers and those affected by Alzheimer's disease.

By Monica Mercer, Staff Writer

A conversation with Dr. Kara Bopp can have an odd way of making you aware of your own forgetfulness.

An expert on memory, she said consolingly, "I have a really good memory for some things and a really bad memory for others."

Dr. Kara Bopp, Wofford psychology professor"There is a lot of research into memory, but it's just so complicated because people are so different," said the assistant professor and cognitive psychologist. "There are differences in age, class, education and experiences that make our memories different and play upon our strengths and weaknesses."

Joyce Finkle, Spartanburg area office coordinator of the Upstate South Carolina Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association, said she is starting to see more interest in memory issues among younger people who, as conventional wisdom goes, don't need to worry about it.

The Alzheimer's Association is promoting the idea that even a 20-year-old needs to focus on maintaining the mind and memory.

"Is working and continually learning protective against memory decline? I think it is," Bopp said. That "learning" can be as simple as exposing yourself to a new language, playing a new sport or reading a challenging author -- anything that breaks you from your normal mental routine.

The Upstate has about 30,000 people with Alzheimer's disease. It's the highest concentration in the state, and according to the Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics, women now live an average of 79.8 years, while men live an average of 73 years.

"What's happening is that we're physically taking care of our bodies better than ever, but we're not thinking about maintaining our minds," Bopp said.

Memory continues to be a hazy subject in the scientific community even as it receives ample attention because of diseases like Alzheimer's that seemingly erase it.

Bopp is contributing to mind and memory awareness through her research at Wofford College on the little-understood "working memory" and how it is affected by age. It's a small field. And studying it as it relates to aging is an even smaller field, Bopp said, but the application of her research could significantly impact a scientist's understanding of Alzheimer's disease.

"The problem with working memory," Bopp said, "is that it's not well-defined, and there's no agreement among researchers on how to define it."

Among other types of memory such as short-term, long-term and autobiographical (how we remember our personal past histories), working memory involves storing a piece of information while being able to process it at the same time -- a common example is being able to think how you want to end a sentence while remembering what you said at the beginning.

Over the summer, Bopp tested 120 healthy individuals -- half of them college-age and half more than 60 years old -- at her Lifespan Cognition Lab with memory tasks involving repetition detection. Participants were asked to find a repeat in a series of numbers or locations in a grid on a computer screen. They also were asked to "switch the focus of attention" by trying to find the repeat in two locations at the same time.

Results suggest that older adults tend to process information slower than younger adults, but that older adults can perform just as accurately if given enough time.

Bopp said the goal is to understand how working memory changes under normal aging circumstances in order to understand the abnormal changes in an age-related disease such as Alzheimer's.

Her work eventually will involve defining working memory more concretely and finding a cognitive process that is specific to abnormal changes so that it can be used as an early detector of Alzheimer's disease.

"If we don't understand how the brain ages normally," Bopp said, "we have nothing to compare Alzheimer's to, which is an abnormal process in the brain."

"Alzheimer's can be treated better if it is detected early," she said.

Monica Mercer can be reached at 562-7215 or monica.mercer@shj.com.