March 30, 2020
Hina Zahid

Exercises aimed at improving vision-based speed of processing (VSOP) and other brain functions may slow the progress of mild cognitive impairment, according to New York-based researchers.

‘VSOP training strengthens cognitive and neural efficiency, with concomitant vagal regulation of cardiac control, suggesting overall better capacity for adaptation to stress,’ Dr. Feng V. Lin and colleagues at the University of Rochester, in New York, write in Neuroimage.

As Dr. Lin told Reuters Health by email, ‘the brain-heart relationship is important; cardiovascular function-driven stress regulation, an important capacity for living and thriving, can be enhanced by brain training in old age.’

She and her colleagues studied 84 older adults (mean age, 74.7), all of whom had amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI). Following baseline assessment, participants were randomly assigned 2:1 to VSOP or to active-control mental leisure activities (MLA). Participants in each group were encouraged to train for 6 weeks, completing four 1-hour sessions each week.

Outcome assessors and participants were blinded to group randomization. The MLA group played online games including word search, Sodoku and Solitaire. The other participants engaged in a suite of five BrainHQ (Posit Science) exercises aimed at boosting processing speed and attention (PS/A).

For example, in one of these exercises, called Hawks Eye, a cluster of birds briefly flashed on to the screen in peripheral vision and participants had to identify the one target bird that differed from the others.

Using a variety of measures including resting and cognitive task-based ECG, and resting fMRI pre- and post-intervention, ‘we aimed to test whether PS/A causally influences vagal control of the autonomic nervous systems via their shared central neural pathways in aMCI,’ the researchers write.

Compared with controls, they found that changes in PS/A and salience-network connectivity ‘significantly predicted change in high frequency heart rate variability from baseline to post-test and/or 6-month-follow-up.’ Age, neurodegeneration, or gender did not affect these relationships.

Interventions in PS/A, they conclude, ‘may be a viable approach for promoting adaptation capacity in groups at risk for dementia.’

Dr. Henry Mahncke, CEO of Posit Science, told Reuters Health by email that ‘this is an encouraging science-based message of hope for people with this condition (aMCI), who might feel that their brains are on an inevitable path of decline.’

But, added Dr. Mahncke, who was not involved in the research, ‘that’s not the case—these results show that people with aMCI have brains that are still capable of positive change with the right kind of brain training. And of course, the same is true for normal cognitive aging, where many large scale trials show that people can improve their brain function and cognitive function with brain training.’

The study had no commercial funding, and the researchers report no conflicts of interest.