Once upon a time, the term “brain training” sounded like something from a science fiction movie. Today, however, experts are turning to computerized brain training to help prevent and treat some of our most serious health problems, including dementia.
In a new study presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Toronto in July 2016 by Dr. Jerri Edwards of the University of South Florida, it was reported that a certain form and dose of brain training has been shown to reduce the risk of dementia by nearly 50 percent over a decade in cognitively healthy, community-dwelling adults age 65 and older.
The training was the focus of a study (ACTIVE, or Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly) that involved 2,802 adults (age 65-92) who were randomly assigned to one of four groups:
• Strategy-based memory training
• Strategy-based reasoning training
• Perceptual-based, computerized speed of processing training (marketed by Posit Science as “Double Decision” to subscribers under its BrainHQ online service)
• Control group (no intervention)
All of the participants in the intervention groups were asked to complete 10 hours of training over five weeks. In addition, a subset of participants completed additional booster training sessions after 11 and 35 months. Everyone underwent extensive evaluations that looked at speed, memory, reasoning, and functional performance, as well as mood, self-rated health, driving, confidence, and predicted healthcare costs. These assessments were conducted when the study began, after five weeks of training, and at one, two, three, five, and ten years after training.
Results of the brain training study
When the investigators compared evaluation results from controls with those in the two strategy-based groups, they did not see any significant difference in the incidence of dementia. However, when they compared results from the speed of processing training group with controls, they saw a 33 percent reduction in dementia risk.
Among the participants who took part in the extra training sessions, the investigators saw a 48 percent reduction in the risk of dementia when compared with controls and after adjusting for dementia risk factors, such as sex, race, mental status, physical status, and depressive symptoms.
What is special about this speed of processing training is that it focuses on brain speed. According to Dr. Michael Merzenich, co-founder of Posit Science, brain speed “inexorably declines decade by decade” after reaching its peak in middle age. “Processing speed is a key index of brain health status-akin, in its diagnostic value, to blood pressure measurements for cardiovascular health.”
Dr. Edwards also has completed a meta-analysis of 18 studies that examined the brain speed training exercise. She noted that the training provides improvement in attention, functional performance, depression, health-related quality of life, and improved driving.
Why brain speed training works
Dr. Edwards explained that speed training works because it “improves cognitive and real-world functional abilities [two areas characteristic of dementia], and as a result, reduces the risk of dementia.” It accomplishes this by rewiring the brain, which experts have seen by measuring the brain’s electrical responses.
“We see that speed training drives brain plasticity, that speed training improves cognitive and real-world function, and that these changes together help explain why speed training reduces the risk of dementia."
What else you need to know
• Currently, the brain speed exercise (Double Decision) and the results of this study are believed to be the first to show that a behavioral approach can reduce the risk of developing dementia. It is unlike other brain exercises on the market and, at the moment, the only one that seems to be available. Access to the exercise is via Posit Science’s BrainHQ online service, which costs $14 per month or $96 per year.
• According to a Wall Street Journal article, Posit Science intends to file a medical-device application with the Food and Drug Administration based on the findings of their clinical trial.
• Experts are uncertain whether brain speed training has an impact on the neurophysiological processes that cause dementia. Dr. Edwards noted that the next step will be a trial that includes individuals at risk for dementia. The trial will determine the best training dose and seek to understand how speed training affects the brain.
• In 2008, Dr. Edwards worked as a consultant for Posit Science for a few months.
• Aside from speed training exercises, there are many other brain exercises available that focus on memory and reasoning. A study in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, for example, reported on the findings of a randomized controlled study in which healthy older adults either participated in 20 one-hour video game training sessions that focused on cognitive functioning and subjective wellbeing or a control group. Adults who had the training showed significant improvements in processing speed, attention, and visual recognition memory when compared with controls.
Anyone who is interested in learning more about the prevention of dementia and loss of memory and cognitive functioning should discuss their concerns with a knowledgeable professional and ask which types of mental exercises could benefit them.
Sources Ballesteros D et al. Brain training with non-action video games enhances aspects of cognition in older adults: a randomized controlled trial. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience 2014 Oct 14; 6:277Bing L et al. Combined cognitive training vs memory strategy training in healthy older adults. Frontiers in Psychology 2016 Jun 7BrainHQ press release. Study shows unique brain exercise lowers risk of dementiaGlobe Newswire news release. Unique brain exercise shown in study to lower risk of dementiaWall Street Journal. Can this brain exercise put off dementia?