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Gaming keeps disease at bay

Computer game could delay Alzheimer’s symptoms, writes Shayla Love

You’re staring at a computer screen.

Two objects flash before your eyes, one directly in front of you, and the other off to the side, barely in view. In a split second, they’re both gone. Now the computer asks you: what were they? Where were they? Did you get a chance to see them both?

If you answer correctly, don’t relax yet. The next level will be harder.

But whatever you do, don’t give up.

A new analysis of previous research data announced at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference this week tentatively suggests that this kind of game could decrease the risk of symptoms of dementia by almost half, compared to not having any brain training at all. The study presented is under peer review and hasn’t yet been published. (Studies can change dramatically from the conference setting to the pages of a journal, reminds PLOS blogger Hilda Bastian, so the findings should be considered preliminary for now.)

The game is called a speed-of-processing task. It’s one of three types of cognitive training that 2,800 people took part in during The Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study, a randomised longitudinal study funded by NIH. The participants averaged 74 years old when the trial began. Scientists tracked them for 10 years, hoping to find out how cognitive training could impact the functioning of healthy older adults.

The participants were split into four groups. One played the speed-of-processing games, and two other groups took a memory or reasoning class. The last group did nothing, and served as a control. The memory classes taught tricks for memorisation, like mnemonic devices or “methods of loci,” which is a tool to remember a series of objects by visualising each one in a different physical location. The reasoning course taught logic and pattern recognition, and trained people how to choose the next letter in a series, based on the order of the ones that precede it.

The most recent ACTIVE paper was published in 2014, and concluded that the different cognitive training could in fact help a little with certain basic tasks, like driving or balancing a checkbook, as people got older.

Monday in Toronto, a research team led by Jerri Edwards at the University of South Florida announced that they had used the wealth of data from the ACTIVE study to ask a different and more provocative question: could cognitive training delay the onset of dementia or cognitive decline related to Alzheimer’s?

Their findings showed that the group that completed 10 to 14 hours- that’s total, over 10 years – of the speed-of-processing games were 48 percent less likely to have developed Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, compared to those who received no brain training at all. These participants did 10 hours of game play in the first year of the study, and then were randomly selected to receive booster sessions up to four more hours throughout the rest of the trial.

“We believe this is the first time a cognitive training intervention has been shown to protect against cognitive impairment or dementia in a large, randomised, controlled trial,” Edwards said, in a press release.

The result caused a stir of cautious curiosity at its presentation, said one attendee, Penny Dacks, a neuroscientist and the Director of Aging and Alzheimer’s Prevention at the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation. It raises some provocative questions: why did speed-of-processing show the strongest correlation and not, for example, the memory classes? And could it really be possible that only 10 to 14 hours had such a large effect, years later?

Washington Post-Bloomberg