DEMENTIA: Brain Training

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A brain training computer game has been shown to improve the memory in people who are in the earliest stages of dementia and could avert some symptoms of cognitive decline.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge developed the ‘Game Show’ app and tested its effects on cognition and motivation in a small trial. They found that those who played the game over a period of a month had around a 40 per cent improvement in their memory scores.

Dr Carol Routledge, director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “The fear of a dementia diagnosis is at an all-time high, and so there is a lot of interest in cognitive brain training and other activities that could help maintain memory and thinking ability as we get older. While staying mentally active as we age has been reported to be beneficial for our brains, the effects of specific brain training games is not clear cut.

“Although there is no sure-fire way to prevent dementia, the best current evidence indicates that staying physically and mentally active, eating a healthy balanced diet, not smoking, drinking in moderation and keeping weight, cholesterol and blood pressure in check are all good ways to support healthy brain ageing.”

Dementia is an incurable condition affecting around 850,000 people in the UK. There are few drugs that can alleviate the symptoms – which include declining memory, thinking, behaviour, navigational and spatial skills and the gradual loss of ability to perform everyday tasks.

Maintaining an active mind has previously been linked to a reduced risk of dementia and some improvements in people’s memory ability.

In this new study, researchers created a cognitive brain training game, and tested whether the game could be beneficial for people with early memory problems, known as amnesic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI).

People with aMCI have memory and thinking problems that may be starting to interfere with day-to-day life but are not severe enough to be categorised as dementia. Not everyone with aMCI goes on to develop dementia but they are at a much higher risk.

The researchers recruited 42 people over the age of 45 who had received a clinical diagnosis of aMCI. The participants were randomly divided into two groups, one of which played the game, the other that attended clinic as normal.

Those in the game-playing group attended eight one-hour sessions over a four-week period. At the beginning and the end of the training period, both groups took a number of thinking and memory tests, as well as tests of apathy and depression.

The researchers found that those in the brain training group showed some small improvements in memory, making fewer errors on memory and thinking tests, compared to the control group who did not play the game.

While this type of brain training will not ultimately be able to prevent or cure memory diseases like dementia, Dr Tara Spires-Jones of the University of Edinburgh believes it is a ‘promising way’ to improve early memory symptoms of the disease.

She said: “This work shows that 21 people with early signs of memory impairment benefitted from playing a specialised memory game on an iPad for one month.

“Activities that engage your brain like learning and certain kinds of ‘cognitive training’ increase connections between brain cells. More connections provide what is called a cognitive reserve and make the brain able to withstand the damage caused by diseases like Alzheimer’s for longer than if you have fewer connections.”

Independent experts said the study’s findings were encouraging, but the app needs to be tested against other forms of brain training in trials involving more people.

The research is published in The International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology.

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