November 16, 2017
Tech Crunch
Jonathan Shieber

Revising the results of their headline-grabbing, decade-long study, researchers from top universities still believe that a brain training exercise from app developer Posit Science can actually reduce the risk of dementia among older adults.

The groundbreaking study still has incredible implications for the treatment of neurological disorders associated with aging — and helps to validate the use of application-based therapies as a form of treatment and preventative intervention.

Even though dementia rates are dropping in the U.S., between four and five million Americans were being treated for dementia last year.

And the disease is the most expensive in America — a 2010 study from the National Institute on Aging, cited by The New York Times estimated that in 2010, dementia patients cost the health care system up to $215 billion per year — more than heart disease or cancer, which cost $102 billion and $77 billion respectively.

Now, the results of the revised study have been published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: Translational Research & Clinical Interventions, a peer-reviewed journal of the Alzheimer’s Association. And they indicate that brain training exercises conducted in a classroom setting can significantly reduce the risk of dementia in older patients.

Researchers from the Indiana University, Pennsylvania State University, the University of South Florida, and Moderna Therapeutics conducted the ten year study, which tracked 2,802 healthy older adults (with an average age of 74) as they went through three different types of of cognitive training.

The randomized study placed one group in a classroom and taught them different memory enhancement strategies; another group received classroom training on basic reasoning skills; while a third group received individualized, computerized brain training in class. A control group received no training at all.

People who were in the cognitive training groups had 10 hour-long training sessions that were conducted over the first five weeks of the study. They were then tested after six weeks with follow on tests after years 1, 2, 3, 5 and 10.

A small subset of those participants received smaller booster sessions in the weeks leading up to the first and third year assessments.

After ten years, the researchers didn’t find a difference in the incidence of dementia between participants in the control group and the reasoning or memory strategy groups. But the brain training group showed marked differences, with researchers finding that the group who received the computerized training had a 29 percent lower incidence of dementia.

“Relatively small amounts of training resulted in a decrease in risk of dementia over the 10-year period of 29 percent, as compared to the control,” said Dr. Jerri Edwards, lead author of the article and a Professor at the University of South Florida, College of Medicine in a statement. “And, when we looked at dose-response, we saw that those who trained more got more protective benefit.”

To put the study in context, Florida researchers compared the risk reduction from dementia associated with the brain training to the risk reductions blood pressure medications have for heart failure, heart disease or stroke. What they found was that the brain training exercises were two-to-four times more effective by comparison.

“No health professional would suggest that any person with hypertension forego the protection offered by prescribed blood pressure medication,” said Dr. Henry Mahncke, the chief executive of Posit Science, in a statement. “We expect these results will cause the medical community to take a much closer look at the many protective benefits of these exercises in both older and clinical populations.”

The study was conducted in part from funding from the National Institutes of Health as part of its Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly Study and refines work from an earlier study published last year.

Posit Science’s brain training exercise was initially developed by Dr. Karlene Ball of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Dr. Dan Roenker of Western Kentucky University.

The company has the exclusive license for the exercise which requires a users to identify objects in the center of their field of vision and their peripheral vision that are displayed simultaneously. As the user identifies objects correctly, the speed with which images are presented accelerates.

This isn’t the first study to show how Posit Science’s brain training techniques can help with neurological conditions.

In October, a report published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, revealed research that brain training can improve cognition for people with bipolar disorder. Based on research from Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital, the stud found that using Posit Science’s BrainHQ app drove improvements in measurements of overall cognitive ability among bipolar patients.

“Problems with memory, executive function, and processing speed are common symptoms of bipolar disorder, and have a direct and negative impact on an individual’s daily functioning and overall quality of life,” said lead investigator Dr. Eve Lewandowski, director of clinical programming for one of McLean’s schizophrenia and bipolar disorder programs and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, at the time. “Improving these cognitive dysfunctions is crucial to helping patients with bipolar disorder improve their ability to thrive in the community.”

Both studies are significant and both bring credence to an argument that computer-based therapies and interventions can play a role in treating and preventing neurological disorders.

They also help to combat a real problem with pseudoscientific solutions and hucksters making false claims about other brain training products that have come onto the market. For instance, the brain game maker Lumosity had to pay a $2 million fine for false advertising from the Federal Trade Commission.

But applications like MindMate, which is working with the National Health Service in the UK, or Game On, which was developed by researchers at Cambridge are showing real promise in helping alleviate or counteract the onset of dementia.

“There are now well over 100 peer-reviewed studies on the benefits of our brain exercises and assessments across varied populations,” said Dr. Mahncke. “The neuroplasticity-based mechanisms that drive beneficial changes across the brain from this type of training are well-documented, and are increasingly understood even by brain scientists not directly involved in their development. This type of training harnesses plasticity to engage the brain in an upward spiral toward better physical and functional brain health.”