Therapeutic games, weak brain stimulation slow cognitive decline - study

Weak brain stimulation and therapeutic games are not just a way to pass the time, according to British, Canadian and Italian researchers

Mental health [illustrative] (photo credit: PIXABAY)
Mental health [illustrative]
(photo credit: PIXABAY)

Most newspapers have puzzles, crosswords and games to challenge readers, and the number of these diversions on the Internet is endless. But they are not just a way to kill time. Scientists have found that they can boost the working memory of older people using non-invasive stimulation. 

Working memory is critical for people to function well in everyday life. This evanescent form of memory holds and manipulates a finite amount of information over a short time interval, enabling people to interact with their environment in an effective and efficient manner. Working memory typically declines as people get older, with the decline in its capacity causing daily difficulties in people with dementia, stroke and Parkinson’s disease. 

Scientists and physicians from the University of Birmingham in the UK; Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada; and the University of Trento in Italy have created a new technology called “cognitive needs and skills training (COGNISANT) to slow this decline. Their study showed that it can provide real benefits for older people who have low working-memory capacity (WMC).

They published their research in Frontiers in Ageing Neuroscience under the title “Older adults with lower working memory capacity benefit from transcranial direct current stimulation when combined with working memory training: A preliminary study.” 

‘SO FAR only half the puzzles I ordered have arrived, but the experience has been fascinating, though nerve-racking.’ (credit: REUTERS)‘SO FAR only half the puzzles I ordered have arrived, but the experience has been fascinating, though nerve-racking.’ (credit: REUTERS)

Online therapeutic exercises similar to games or apps

The online therapeutic exercises, developed to improve working memory, attention and vigilance, are packaged in the type of attractive interface that would be familiar to online game or App users.  Brain stimulation was administered via a mobile wireless device that delivers a small, two-milliAmpère transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) during training.

The study involved healthy people aged 55 to 76 years old who were split into two groups. Both groups played the online games for 20 minutes a day over a five-day period. While one group also received tDCS, the other group wore the tDCS device, which resembles a swimming cap, but did not receive tDCS.

The researchers, who measured baseline WMC before the study and two days after completion, found that WMC improved significantly in all participants regardless of age or whether they received tDCS.

Importantly, the combination of training games and tDCS showed particular benefit in older people with lower initial working memory who represented a subset of people aged 69.5 to 76 years. The advantage was evident from the first day of training and became statistically significant when it was concluded.

The team included biomedical engineer Dr Sara Assecondi (formerly at Birmingham but now at Trento’s Center for Mind/Brain Sciences); Prof.  Kim Shapiro from Birmingham’s School of Psychology; and Prof. Gail Eskes from Dalhousie’s psychology and neuroscience departments.

“Approaches used for hospital rehabilitation are difficult to translate to the home setting, but our approach uses online tools, and delivers brain stimulation via a device that can be used anywhere, with the dose determined remotely by the physician,” said Assecondi.

“Intensive exercises at just the right difficulty are important for increasing brain capacity or efficiency,” added Eskes, “and the game-like aspects increase motivation and make it easier to stick with the challenging sessions.”

“Although cognitive decline in the elderly is an inevitability, approaches such as COGNISANT, in combination with regular physical exercise, can stem this decline and provide individuals with a higher quality of life.”

Prof. Kim Shapiro

“Although cognitive decline in the elderly is an inevitability, approaches such as COGNISANT, in combination with regular physical exercise, can stem this decline and provide individuals with a higher quality of life,” said Shapiro.

The researchers have already shown in a previous study that coupling tDCS with strategy on how to do tasks requiring working memory can also help young people with low WMC to improve their performance by helping them put in place strategies that they would not otherwise be able to develop.

The researchers are planning further studies to study other means of brain stimulation that may be even more effective. They are now finishing up a study evaluating the benefits of COGNISANT in patients who have undergone a stroke.