Using virtual reality to characterize episodic memory profiles in amnestic mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer's disease: influence of active and passive encoding

G Plancher, A Tirard, V Gyselinck, S Nicolas, P Piolino
Neuropsychologia 2012, 50 (5): 592-602
Most neuropsychological assessments of episodic memory bear little similarity to the events that patients actually experience as memories in daily life. The first aim of this study was to use a virtual environment to characterize episodic memory profiles in an ecological fashion, which includes memory for central and perceptual details, spatiotemporal contextual elements, and binding. This study included subjects from three different populations: healthy older adults, patients with amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI) and patients with early to moderate Alzheimer's disease (AD). Second, we sought to determine whether environmental factors that can affect encoding (active vs. passive exploration) influence memory performance in pathological aging. Third, we benchmarked the results of our virtual reality episodic memory test against a classical memory test and a subjective daily memory complaint scale. Here, the participants were successively immersed in two virtual environments; the first, as the driver of a virtual car (active exploration) and the second, as the passenger of that car (passive exploration). Subjects were instructed to encode all elements of the environment as well as the associated spatiotemporal contexts. Following each immersion, we assessed the patient's recall and recognition of central information (i.e., the elements of the environment), contextual information (i.e., temporal, egocentric and allocentric spatial information) and lastly, the quality of binding. We found that the AD patients' performances were inferior to that of the aMCI and even more to that of the healthy aged groups, in line with the progression of hippocampal atrophy reported in the literature. Spatial allocentric memory assessments were found to be particularly useful for distinguishing aMCI patients from healthy older adults. Active exploration yielded enhanced recall of central and allocentric spatial information, as well as binding in all groups. This led aMCI patients to achieve better performance scores on immediate temporal memory tasks. Finally, the patients' daily memory complaints were more highly correlated with the performances on the virtual test than with their performances on the classical memory test. Taken together, these results highlight specific cognitive differences found between these three populations that may provide additional insight into the early diagnosis and rehabilitation of pathological aging. In particular, neuropsychological studies would benefit to use virtual tests and a multi-component approach to assess episodic memory, and encourage active encoding of information in patients suffering from mild or severe age-related memory impairment. The beneficial effect of active encoding on episodic memory in aMCI and early to moderate AD is discussed in the context of relatively preserved frontal and motor brain functions implicated in self-referential effects and procedural abilities.

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