Multiple Sclerosis Patients Benefit from Story Memory Technique

Researchers from the Kessler Foundation Research Center recently completed two clinical trials to test the Story Memory Technique (SMT), a non-medical, behavioral memory therapy designed to help patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) learn new information and improve their “everyday” memory. The trials were led by Dr. Nancy Chiaravalloti, Director of the Neuropsychology and Neuroscience Laboratory at the KesslerF oundation. Her findings have been presented at the 2011 European and Americas Committees for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis.

Cognitive impairment is a symptom that affects 40 to 60 percent of MS patients. Patients who underwent both clinical trials experienced remarkable improvement in memory.  “What we found in research done in the 1990s is that they are having trouble learning new information,” Dr. Chiaravalloti told DailyRx. The SMT was designed to remedy that problem.

“If you expose them to that information over and over and over again – more than you would a healthy person – they can learn it, they can remember it, and use it appropriately,” said Dr. Chiaravalloti. “But they need more help initially learning new information.”

Dr. Chiaravalloti explained that the Story Memory Technique combines two methods of learning. The first method involves imagining words as pictures—visualizing information. “A lot of what we do in our daily lives is based on verbal information, or words,” she said. “If you visualize information theoretically, you’re engaging more brain regions in helping you learn that information.”

The second method is contextualizing information. “If we put things in a larger context and relate them to each other, we remember them better than if we’re remembering little pieces of information that aren’t related to each other,” said Dr. Chiaravalloti. “It teaches people how to take unrelated information and put it into a unified context.”

She gave as an example the task of remembering a to-do list. A person who has to pick up dry cleaning, go to the bank, and pay the bills would visualize all of those tasks as one single image—the dry cleaning hanging on the door and a pile of bills lying in front of a bank. The mental image forms a context around a person’s tasks and facilitates memory.

Dr. Chiaravalloti said some doctors currently use this technique, but until now there was no data to show its effectiveness on larger groups of patients. There was also no evidence to show the most effective means of implementation. “There’s not a standardized treatment protocol,” she said.

If the trials are any indication, SMT shows much promise for MS patients. “We show data that shows people report their everyday memory to improve after treatment,” Dr. Chiaravalloti said. “The other thing we’ve also shown is that there are changes in the brain after treatment – the pattern of activation in the brain when a person is learning a list of words.  After treatment, people show significantly more activation in areas associated with visual processing and organization, whereas patients who don’t undergo treatment show no change.”

Results from the first trial were published in 2005 and results from the second, larger trial will be published in 2012. Data from the second trial showed similar results to the first trial. The researchers hope to get information about the SMT’s benefits to clinicians for use with their patients. Dr. Chiaravalloti is optimistic that a standard treatment protocol will be in place as early as this Spring.