November 16, 2005
Genetic Engineering News
Staff Reporter

A global team of researchers has developed a program that dramatically improves auditory memory and other cognitive functions in older adults. Members of the team, organized by Posit Science Corporation, presented findings on a pilot study that evaluates the impact of the program at the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting today in Washington, DC.

The randomized controlled study showed that participants using a computer-based brain training program achieved significant improvement in neurocognitive function and memory. After eight weeks of specialized training, the intervention group improved, on average, by more than 10 years in standard measures of auditory memory, attention and other cognitive function.

“For a long time, we have given the advice ‘use it or lose it,’ but no one has really known what it is they should do. This study shows what kind of activity is necessary to enhance cognitive ability even at an advanced age,” said Michael Merzenich, Ph.D., Posit Science Chief Scientific Officer. “We now know that it is possible to harness the brain’s plasticity, or ability to adapt at any age, to positively affect brain function.”

Unlike memory enhancement treatments that rely on pharmacological therapies or strategy-learning techniques that teach memory tricks, the Posit Science program is designed based on extensive research into brain plasticity, treating the underlying problem and not simply the symptoms.

“By showing that even the adult brain has the ability to constantly improve, we are opening up an entirely new frontier for developing therapies to reverse the cognitive decline associated with aging,” said Merzenich.

To measure results, participants went through baseline and post-training memory and cognitive assessments, using a battery of standardized tests. The gains of the group using the training program were clinically and statistically significant.

According to Merzenich, participants in the training group also reported quality of life benefits from the program, including heightened alertness, deeper engagement in conversation, and a greater sense of control over their lives.

Further studies are currently in the works to evaluate the effects of brain plasticity-based training on the ability to process and understand speech. Using sophisticated brain imaging techniques, researchers plan to map how the program changes brain function. “The data look very promising,” said Ronald Ruff, Ph.D. ABPP, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCSF and Adjunct Associate Professor at Stanford University, “and the plasticity approach to improving cognitive function certainly merits further study.”

“It seems each year brings new advances to increase the human lifespan. Our program shows that plasticity-based training can help cognitive performance keep pace,” said Merzenich. “In so doing, we hope to improve overall quality of life as we age, helping to ensure that our ‘brainspan’ will match our ever-growing lifespan.”

About the Study
The study was conducted at Rossmoor, a retirement community near San Francisco, California, with 95 volunteers aged 61-94. Researchers compared results from memory and cognitive assessment scores in participants enrolled in 40 one-hour training sessions with a control group using a computer and with a no-contact group. Participants using the brain plasticity-based training program improved 10 or more years on average in neurocognitive status. Those participants who completed more difficult levels of exercises showed the greatest improvements.

Standardized assessment tools included digit span backwards, which tests working memory, and Repeatable Battery for Assessment of Neuropsychological Status (RBANS), which evaluates five cognitive areas: immediate memory, delayed memory, attention, spoken language and visuospatial perception.