A new study, which is using images of birds to gain a better understanding of how people build associations and knowledge in memory, is recruiting participants through Join Dementia Research.

Understanding how long-term memory works

Researchers on the University of Sheffield-led study want to find out how those with knowledge of birds in their long-term memory compare to those with little knowledge of birds when forming new memories. 

The study involves a 2-hour long Zoom call where participants are asked to study different pictures of birds alongside words associated with those birds such as ‘quick’ if the bird is fast. The pictures are then taken off the participants’ screen and they are asked to recall what birds they have seen and the words used alongside them. 

Participants also complete memory and cognition tests and questionnaires on their knowledge of birds and demographic information such as age and gender. 

Because people’s knowledge of birds varies, it is a good topic for researchers to use when investigating how memory can be affected by a person’s prior knowledge. For example, some recognise the appearance of certain species better than others. 

The study will help researchers to gain an understanding of the processes that allow different people to keep this information active in working memory and retrieve it from their long-term memory. 

It is hoped that this will then help aid understanding of how long-term memory changes across the adult lifespan. This will help gather information on steps that can be taken to help improve memory and cognitive ability in older age. 

This research is based on previous studies into the impact of knowledge on memory across the adult life span. 

Who can take part?

The study is seeking participants aged 18-35 and 60-80 who have never had a dementia or mild cognitive impairment diagnosis, so that the researchers can investigate how prior knowledge in these groups affects memory for new associations differently. No previous knowledge of birds is required. 

As it is being conducted remotely via Zoom, people from across the UK are being asked to participate in the study, which is open to recruitment until January 2025. 

Minimising memory loss in older age 

The study’s chief investigator, Dr Vanessa Loaiza, said: “Many assume that the trajectory of cognition across the adult lifespan is one of decline. However, much of my research and that of others shows that normal age-related memory deficits could be minimised by drawing on the often-overlooked benefits of getting older, such as having extensive prior knowledge in a particular area. 

“The aim of this study expands on this prior work by investigating whether prior knowledge in a more specific domain, such as birds, can be best leveraged to improve memory for new information across the adult lifespan. Such work can inform the best strategies to remember associative information, from new names to where you left your mobile phone.

“If we understand the underpinnings forming new associations in memory, such as a name to a new acquaintance, then we can inform on the best theory and evidence-based strategies to minimise the incidence of forgetfulness.” 

To find out if you are eligible to take part in a dementia study, sign in to your Join Dementia Research account or, if you are not already registered, sign up today.