Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Rewiring the brain for health – with computers?

Brain training and computersYou’ve probably heard of the benefits of “brain training” as we age. Whether it’s simple puzzles like crossword or sudoku, or a more involved intellectual hobby, lots of people want to do whatever we can.

But brain training isn’t just a folk theory, and a group of researchers from Aix-Marseille University in France wanted to prove that we can train our brains to ward off cognitive decline in old age.

They gathered 22 patients aged 65-90 with memory complaints, all of whom met the diagnostic criteria for mild cognitive impairment.

Before the study began, researchers gave tests to evaluate their verbal and visual memory.
Next, they were randomly sorted into two groups. The first group performed a set of computerized training exercises, while the second performed a set of simple cognitive activities to serve as a control.

The computerized exercises were comprised of three parts: a visual recognition task, which involved memorizing pictures and identifying them later, an attentional training task, which required quickly identifying specific pictures in different areas of a computer screen, and a focused attention task, where patients had to quickly distinguish between multiple pictures being presented at the same time.

Meanwhile, researchers gave the control group a set of exercises where they were asked to find names of countries, organize lists of similar items, and read a passage and then answer some questions.

Both groups participated in either the training or the cognitive exercises for 24 sessions of approximately an hour each.

Once it was over, researchers retested their memory . . .

. . . and the results were dramatic.

The patients who took the computerized training scored significantly better than the control group in both visual and spatial memory. The computerized training group also improved significantly from their pre-training memory measures.

What makes this study interesting to me is that these results didn’t require a massive lifestyle change. Although 24 hour-long sessions might seem like a lot, consider the time many of us spend each week watching television or on the internet. It probably wouldn’t be difficult to turn some of that into dedicated brain training time.

Of course, this study faces a couple of important limitations.

First, the sample size is very small, so we can’t be too certain about the accuracy of the findings. Second, because this study was conducted on people diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, we don’t know much about whether computerized training would be effective for the general population.Brain training and computers
I’d like to see a larger study, even if it’s still conducted on patients with pre-existing complaints. I’d also like to see a study that looks at the effect of computerized training on aging people outside of a patient population. We need further research in this area in order to develop simple and effective brain training routines that can be done easily at home.
Of course, practical brain training solutions are already out there – and you can learn about them in the New Brain Science webinar series. If you want to learn just how much your brain can change, click here to sign up for this week’s free webinar with Norman Doidge, MD.

And you can read about this study in Volume 50 of Neuropsychologia.
Do you have a personal routine to keep your brain in shape? Have you ever recommended a brain training routine to one of your clients? Take a moment to share your thoughts below.

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