Ruben Castaneda
U.S. News & World Report
January 10, 2018

In one computer exercise, a car or truck briefly flashes on your computer screen while a road sign appears on the periphery. Your task is to pick the correct object in the center and locate the sign on the periphery. Doing so requires you to practice dividing your attention. As you give correct answers, the objects flash on the screen more quickly, in fractions of seconds, forcing you to process information more rapidly. As the exercise progresses, the road sign is pushed further out on the periphery and additional distracting objects appear in the field, making it harder for you to correctly identify the targets.

The repetitive task isn’t exactly fun, like an action-packed computer game in which you get to use a laser to vanquish make-believe adversaries. But “speed of processing cognitive training,” as it’s known, may provide a tool that could reduce the risk of dementia among healthy older people, a recent study suggests. The Advanced Cognitive Training In Vital Elderly study was a randomized controlled clinical trial that involved 2,800 healthy older people over a span of 10 years. Some of the participants received up to 10 speed of processing cognitive training sessions over six weeks, with additional booster exercises 11 and 35 months later. Other participants were trained in strategies involving problem solving and how to improve their memories. A control group didn’t participate in any cognitive training. “Initially, healthy older adults randomized to speed of processing had a 29 percent reduction rate in their risk for dementia after 10 years of follow-up compared to the untreated control group,” the study authors wrote. The study was published in November 2017 in Alzheimer’s & Dementia Translational Research & Clinical Interventions.

“The study provides evidence of a modest potential improvement with cognitive training exercises,” says Dr. Daniel Franc, a neurologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “Based on the results of the study, we cannot state with certainty that computerized cognitive training is protective for the development of dementia. However, this research would suggest that further study of the effects of cognitive training focused on mental flexibility and speed would be warranted.” In the past decade, more than 1,000 research studies and reports involving computerized cognitive training – not all were of the speed of processing variety – have generally shown such programs to be associated with short-term improvements in conducting day-to-day activities, Franc says.

Dementia isn’t one specific disease, but a general term covering a wide range of symptoms, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases, the association reports. More than 5 million people in the U.S. are living with Alzheimer’s, which is the sixth-leading cause of death in the country. There’s no cure for dementia and no one thing people can do to try to prevent it. Rather, the best strategy to ward off or delay dementia is to engage in a combination of healthy behaviors, such as exercising routinely to avoid high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol, all of which are risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s; adopting an eating regimen low in fat and high in vegetables and fruit; challenging your mind; and taking care of your mental health. Speed of processing cognitive training can be part of this overall approach, says Daniel Clark, an associate professor of medicine at the Indiana University School of Medicine and one of the co-authors of the recent study.

Understanding Speed of Processing Training

Speed of processing training is a kind of cognitive training that involves people doing tasks that require them to process information quickly. The participants in the November study used programs from BrainHQ, an online brain-training system that was designed by an international team of neuroscientists, led by Michael Merzenich, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a co-inventor of the cochlear implant. The training programs can be used on almost any computer or mobile device, and users can set up personal training goals and have the firm send training reminders.

Speed of cognitive training is a “low-risk, low-cost option that doesn’t have side effects and will likely reduce your risk of developing dementia down the road,” says Jerri Edwards, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of South Florida and one of the study’s authors. The speed of processing program used in the research was developed by BrainHQ by Posit Science. BrainHQ has about eight speed of processing training programs, Clark says. A subscription that would allow a user access to BrainHQ cognitive training programs is available for $8 a month, according to the firm’s website. (BrainHQ did not respond to emails.)

What Is Cognitive Training?

Cognitive training involves a broad array of techniques and is used by neuropsychologists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists and other clinical rehabilitation medicine specialists to help improve a patient’s ability to function after a brain injury or other neurological setback, like a stroke, according to BrainTrain, which develops computerized cognitive training programs. Such exercises can be used as a tool to achieve specific therapeutic goals, such as training frustration tolerance and enhancing self-esteem and developing problem-solving strategies. Educators can use cognitive training in a school setting to improve executive functioning – exercising self-control to not interrupt the teacher, for example – memory, attention, perception, reasoning, planning and general learning. Cognitive training tasks can be conducted on a computer and, in some cases, with paper and pencil.

Some research has shown that cognitive training can have a positive effect on people with mild cognitive impairment. In a study published in July 2017 in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology, researchers found that 21 people who had mild cognitive impairment (not to the level of dementia) experienced “robust” improvement in their episodic memory after engaging in cognitive training that consisted of playing a memory game on an iPad. The game allowed players to participate in a “game show” to win gold coins. Players had to associate different geometric patterns with different locations to win coins. The 21 people in the study played eight hours of games over four weeks; a control group of 21 other people did not play the games.

How It Works

In one speed of processing training exercise, images of eight birds appear on the screen, against a background of blue, like the sky. One of the birds has darker wings than the others; images of the fowl flash and disappear, and you’re asked to identify the area where the dark-winged bird appeared. As the exercise continues, the images flash and disappear more rapidly. The computer program provides plenty of feedback for each task, as well as the opportunity to review your starting score and track your improvements and training efforts.

While there’s no guaranteed way to prevent or delay dementia, adopting an array of healthy habits and doing speed of processing cognitive training could be helpful, Clark says. “There’s no doubt it improves cognitive performance on the trained tasks,” he says. “It probably sets one up to have better cognitive reserves for any brain pathology that may come.”