Can "Brain Training" Help Dementia Patients?

While previous research suggests that cognitive training can help older adults stay mentally active and delay potential memory decline, there is still considerable controversy relating to the many "brain training" apps that have been released in recent years.   Even though some experts have openly endorsed many of these programs, others argue that they are a waste of money.  But a new research study published in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology has shown that a specializing brain training app can help improve memory for people in the very early stages of dementia.   George Savulich and Barbara Sahakian of the University of Cambridge helped developed the app which they tested on patients dealing with amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI), an early form of memory impairment which can lead to more serious dementia.  The iPad app, titled "Game Show",  allows patients to assume the role of game show players who go through a series of rounds during which they can win gold coins.  Each round involves associating geometric patterns with different locations and players can continue until either finishing the game or making six errors in a row.  The app is designed to become progressively harder depending on the skill level of the player.   There is also an animated game show host to keep players motivated and to encourage them to keep trying to improve their last performance.

Research results show that patients who play the game for a total of eight one-hour sessions over a four-week period improve their overall memory functioning and are able to retain more complex visual information than patients in the control group who received conventional treatment.  They also improved their memory scores by as much as 40 percent.   Participants in the study report that they enjoy playing the game and are motivated to continue playing as a result.  

"Good brain health is as important as good physical health. There's increasing evidence that brain training can be beneficial for boosting cognition and brain health, but it needs to be based on sound research and developed with patients," says Professor Barbara Sahakian, co-inventor of the game: "It also need to be enjoyable enough to motivate users to keep to their programmes. Our game allowed us to individualise a patient's cognitive training programme and make it fun and enjoyable for them to use."

Given their success to date, the researchers hope to extend their study to include patients with mild Alzheimer's disease as well as learn more about how the app can help with normal aging.    


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