July 29, 2018
New Atlas
Rich Haridy

Over the last few years, a surge of brain-training apps have hit the market purported to do everything from improve memory to staving off the onset of age-related dementia, but outside of anecdotal reports, actual scientific evidence proving many of these claims has been hard to find. A new study from researchers at McGill University in association with commercial company Posit Science has presented fascinating evidence showing how a particular proprietary brain exercise can directly increase production of a chemical critical to memory and learning.

Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter known to be essential for the brain to effectively process memories and learning. Levels of acetylcholine in the brain have been seen to decrease with age, and concentrations are known to be particularly low in the brains of patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Currently, an early-stage treatment for patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s is to deliver what is known as a cholinesterase inhibitor. These drugs block a certain enzyme from breaking down acetylcholine, subsequently increasing levels of the important compound in the brain, and hopefully slowing the onset of cognitive deficits associated with the condition.

This new study set out to find out what effects brain training exercises had on levels of acetylcholine in the brain. The initial, and admittedly very small, study looked at five healthy older adults. The subjects completed around 12 hours of brain training across six weeks using a proprietary program called BrainHQ.

Brain imaging using PET scans were conducted to track acetylcholine levels before and after the experiment. The results were fascinating, with an upregulation of acetylcholine identified in four specific areas of the brain: the right inferior frontal gyrus, left caudate nucleus, bilateral medial prefrontal cortex, and left lingual gyrus/Cuneus. Across these areas improvements in acetylcholine levels of between 16 and 24 percent were identified, alongside behaviorally tracked improvements in sustained attention.

“This is the first confirmation in humans that this more organic strategy can work, leading to higher levels of acetylcholine even in a resting state,” says Michael Merzenich and Kavli Laureate from Posit Science. “Now, we need to perform larger studies in at-risk, pre-dementia, and dementia populations.”

This is undeniably a very small sample set, and as the Posit Science team suggests, a great deal more work needs to be done before a clear conclusion can be generated. However, this does offer up initial evidence of a compelling neurological mechanism that is activated by a brain training exercise. Whether or not this simple mechanism can actively stall the onset of dementia, or even reduce its active symptoms, is yet to be proven.

More general recent studies examining the efficacy of computer-based brain training in relation to age-related cognitive decline have reported a broad variety of results. In specific contexts, some kinds of brain training have been shown to improve cognition in older adults, but many commercial general products have been found to confer no beneficial effect. At what stage in a person’s cognitive decline these types of brain exercises are most useful is also yet to be clearly understood.

While this particular study was ostensibly conducted with the agenda of promoting a specific commercial brain training program, it still offers an interesting insight into how a neurochemical mechanism can be potentially modulated through a simple cognitive exercise.