November 16, 2017
New Scientist
Mallory Locklear

Could a computer brain-training program be the first effective tool for preventing dementia? The results from a decade-long study of over a thousand people suggests it might be.

Approximately 47 million people have dementia worldwide, but there are no known interventions that can be used to reduce the risk of a person developing the condition.

Now a study of 2,800 people over the age of 65 has found that those who did a type of brain-training intended to boost a person’s brain processing speed were 29 per cent less likely to develop dementia over a ten-year period.

Brain-training is a controversial area. There’s a booming market in computer games designed to improve a person’s memory, attention, or multitasking skills, for example, but evidence on whether they work any better than other types of computer game has been mixed.

Jerri Edwards, of the University of South Florida, and her team have been testing three brain-training programs to see if any might protect against dementia. These programs are designed to target memory, reasoning, or processing speed. “These are very basic abilities that tend to decline with age,” says Edwards.

Processing speed

The participants did one of the three types of training at the start of the study. This consisted ten trials of training, each lasting around 65 minutes, spread across roughly six weeks. The participants were then reassessed by the team at various intervals afterwards, up to ten years later.

Only 1,200 people stuck with the study for the full decade. But when the team analysed the data from these people, they found that those who did the speed of processing training were 29 per cent less likely to have developed dementia than people in the control group. Those who did the memory or reasoning training were just as likely to have developed dementia as the control group.

The processing training involved having to identify objects briefly displayed on a computer screen. As trials go on, the objects are shown for shorter amounts of time, among other distracting objects, and with increasingly detailed backgrounds, so that the game gets progressively more difficult.

Those who received additional training sessions, 11 and 35 months after the first training session, showed even lower rates of dementia. However, it is possible that any improvements seen in the processing speed training group may have been due to chance, and not directly caused by the training itself.

Brief intervention

“I think it’s really interesting,” says Eric Larson, of the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute, Seattle. However, he says the results are preliminary and need to be replicated.

Juleen Rodakowski, of the University of Pittsburgh, agrees. “It warrants further investigation into interventions that are potent enough to slow decline to Alzheimer’s disease or dementia,” she says.

There are limitations to the study, including the fact that dementia was determined by self-reporting or cognitive assessments, not a full clinical diagnosis.

Some remain skeptical. The findings that only a few hours of cognitive training may reduce dementia risk after ten years should be treated with caution, according to Rob Howard, of University College London. “I find it implausible that such a brief intervention could have this effect,” he said in a statement to the UK Science Media Centre.

Journal reference: Alzheimer’s & Dementia: Translational Research & Clinical Interventions