For decades, we’ve been waiting on the scientific community to find a cure for Alzheimer’s—but very little progress has been made. The first drug used to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s was Cognex (tacrine), which was approved in 1993; and the most recent was Namenda (memantine), approved in 2003. That means that in the past 16 years, there have been no new drugs approved. But the news is even worse than that—over those sixteen years, more than 100 drugs have been tested in clinical trials, and none has been shown effective in treating Alzheimer’s. Not one. And over this time, no drug has been shown to safely and effectively improve cognitive function in healthy adults, either—or to reduce the risk of dementia.
This ongoing set of disappointing results from the pharmaceutical industry has raised interest in what are called “non-pharmacological” approaches—a catch-all term that includes everything from diet to exercise to brain training.
It won’t surprise you to hear that everyone at Posit Science is a big proponent of “non-pharmacological” approaches for brain health. One of the reasons we invented BrainHQ is because we believed that brain training was the most direct way to improve brain health.
Recently, our viewpoint (which we share with a lot of people) got a big boost from an important advocacy group called UsAgainstAlzheimers, an organization that works to build and share knowledge about research, and to accelerate clinical trials. This organization was founded by a group of people each of whom had been affected by Alzheimer’s in their families, and who share a common goal of stopping this disease by 2025. UsAgainstAlzheimers just released a new report entitled “Non-Pharmacological Therapies in Alzheimer’s Disease: A Systematic Review”—you can read a summary, or download the full report. The report is a systematic review of more than 300 published studies of non-pharmacological interventions relevant to improving cognitive function and/or slowing the onset of dementia. Each type of intervention was systematically rated with a “level of evidence” describing the strength of the data behind the intervention.
Among dietary and nutritional interventions, the MIND diet (a version of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet, with additional modifications to support brain health) was rated highly, with promising results also noted for cocoa/chocolate, B-vitamins, and essential fatty acids. Aerobic exercise was also rated highly.
Cognitive training was also rated highly, with the report noting that “one therapeutic outcome with a specific population is very clear: The use of computerized cognitive training programs in normal aging, regardless of the domain studied, significantly improved cognitive and real-world performance. This is backed up by several large studies, well-executed clinical trials, and published meta-analyses.”
Our own BrainHQ was a specific focus of the report, highlighted in a case study about available, evidence-based interventions to support cognitive health. BrainHQ was described as “a notable computerized therapy available now,” and the report was eager to see BrainHQ advance into further studies to evaluate the effect of regular BrainHQ training on dementia prevention. I’m happy to say that several such studies are now beginning, funded by the National Institute on Aging.
I’m excited about the promise of all of these interventions (and of course BrainHQ in particular). It’s more and more clear that keeping the brain healthy as a biological organ—through exercise, nutrition, and brain training—can maintain and improve cognitive function, and help our “brain-spans” match our increasing life-spans. This report from UsAgainstAlzheimers shows us what is required to make the new science of non-pharmacological cognitive enhancement a reality: investments in the basic science behind these approaches, and doing the rigorous clinical trials required to show efficacy. This work is now paying off for all of us—and it can’t come soon enough!