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Identifying and Improving Memory Loss

Brain disease and memory loss research

A Next Generation Research Grant funds research into the memory consolidation process and an intervention to improve it

Changes in memory can happen in normal, healthy aging. But in patients with brain diseases, like Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia, memory loss can be severe.

Bryan Baxter, PhD, is a postdoctoral research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital researching memory loss and interventions to improve memory during sleep. “My hopes for this research are to really understand how memories are consolidated during sleep, with the overall aim of developing interventions to help people that have memory problems,” he says.

His research is made possible by the American Brain Foundation’s Next Generation Research Grants program. This grant received funding from the McKnight Brain Research Foundation and American Brain Foundation, in collaboration with the American Academy of Neurology.

We spoke to Dr. Baxter about what his research means for patients suffering from brain diseases. We also discussed our understanding of the link between memory and sleep.

How Are Memory and Sleep Connected?

While memory loss is central to aging, it significantly decreases the quality of life for people who experience it, Dr. Baxter says. When we make a memory, it starts deep in our brain as a short-term memory. That memory then appears on the surface of the brain and becomes a long-term memory.

This process of transferring memories happens during sleeping. We refer to this as sleep dependent memory consolidation and it involves coordination between several areas of the brain. “We know that in aging, healthy aging, and in people with age dependent memory loss, they actually have dysfunctional brain activity across these different areas,” says Dr. Baxter. “Understanding what is going on in a healthy brain when it goes wrong and understanding how these networks interact is really useful for a wide spectrum of diseases.”

Identifying and Treating Memory Loss

Part of Dr. Baxter’s research focuses on finding a way to identify when memory consolidation happens by recording brain activity on the surface of the head while someone is asleep. “This, in turn, could lead to developing interventions or understanding if interventions are actually working,” he says.

The intervention Dr. Baxter is studying is playing sounds when somebody is sleeping. These sounds need to play while memory consolidation occurs. That’s why identifying an easy way to determine when that is happening is so important. “Your ongoing brain activity is doing everything you’re supposed to do while you’re sleeping,” he says. “If you play these sounds at a very particular time, you can evoke this activity and, in turn, likely improve memory.”

How Can this Research Impact Other Brain Diseases?

Memory and memory consolidation is key to all living things, Dr. Baxter says, and when the process goes wrong, the impact can be huge. “When it goes wrong, which happens in a lot of different brain diseases, it can severely affect the quality of life of people,” he says. “Dementia, age-related memory loss, Parkinson’s disease, all these different neurodegenerative and neurological diseases are related to networks in the brain.”

Dr. Baxter’s research aims to both further understand how the memory consolidation process occurs and how to improve it. “We’re trying to understand how activity in different networks relates to each other and develop tools to understand that and apply that in the future,” he says. “Other people can take these tools to apply it to other diseases as well.”

The American Brain Foundation’s Next Generation Research Grant program recruits the best and brightest researchers, like Dr. Baxter, to work on early diagnoses, treatments and cures for brain disease and further advance the field. The program is possible through our unique partnership with the American Academy of Neurology, which allows us to tap into the largest brain trust of neurologists and brain disease researchers in the world to support research projects.

The American Brain Foundation was founded to bring researchers and donors together in the fight against brain disease. Next Generation Research Grants fund the innovative research of early-career investigators, encouraging passion for research and laying the groundwork for future success. Learn more about brain disease or make a gift to support groundbreaking brain disease research.