Video games that help the mind fight dementia


For decades, major scientific research has focused on preventing the deterioration of the human brain caused by diseases classified as dementia. While certain medications have the ability to help treat the symptoms of neurodegenerative disease, lifestyle changes are the best preventative measure. Changing your diet, exercising, and increasing the speed at which you socialize are some examples. But something that can be added to the repertoire might be a bit more fun. Researchers are studying specially designed video games to help prevent cognitive decline. More in this article from The Wall Street Journal. –Ross Sinclair

Games that push the brain to its limits attract the attention of scientists in the fight against dementia

Specialized video games promise a workout for your brain. Scientists are studying whether they can prevent dementia.

By Betsy Morris

You may be able to prevent or delay dementia with changes in diet and exercise, research has found. Today, another possible tool to avoid dementia is attracting the attention of researchers: specially designed video games.

The companies are marketing a series of digital games that promise training for the brain, with a battery of speed, attention and memory exercises. Researchers are also working there. Scientists are investigating whether such ‘brain training’ games can help avoid or delay age-related brain deterioration.

These games are not what people usually think of as video games or puzzles. In some, players must differentiate and recall sounds, patterns, and objects, making quick decisions that become more difficult as games progress. One game gives users a split second to locate two matching butterflies in a swarm before the image disappears.

Many scientists say it’s too soon to tell if games can actually prevent dementia, and wonder if they can lead to long-term improvements in memory and daily functioning. But some scientists think the games hold enough promise to spend millions of dollars studying them.

Neuroscientists have long recommended traditional games, such as bridge, sudoku and crossword, to keep the brain sharp. However, crosswords do not help people process information quickly, a skill whose age-related deterioration can progress to dementia.

New games, like the one called Double Decision developed by scientists, trying to stimulate and accelerate neural activity and slow the deterioration of brain physiology that occurs with age.

In a healthy brain, myelin, a layer of insulation, keeps nerve fibers taut and densely packed, says Chandramallika Basak, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. Our myelin frays and unravels with age, interfering with memory and clear thinking, she says.

In recent imaging studies, his team and scientists from the University of Iowa observed that people who played brain-training games maintained or increased myelin in certain parts of the brain compared to control groups. who played other types of games that did not require speed or boost. difficulty levels.

Interest in studying brain-training games has grown since a 2020 report published in the journal Lancet said that up to 40% of dementia cases could theoretically be prevented or delayed with changes lifestyle, such as adjusting diet and exercise and managing hypertension.

Dementia is characterized by age-related loss of memory, attention, and thinking speed that is severe enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s, a neurodegenerative disease, is the most common type of dementia. Women aged 45 have a 20% lifetime chance of develop Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Men of the same age have a 10% chance.

Cognitive training, which includes everything from computer-based exercises to puzzles and the bridge, has been identified by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine as a promising area for dementia intervention research. There is no recommended age to start playing these games. You can find games online or at libraries, community colleges, or local chapters of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Brain-training games have not been proven to prevent dementia, says the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health. So far, studies have yielded mixed results on the effectiveness of games; doubts remain about their ability to produce long-term practical improvements.

Still, the research to date has been encouraging enough – and dementia so widespread – that scientists are studying the games further. The World Health Organization in 2019 recommended cognitive training for older people as a way to reduce the risk of dementia, although the science behind it is not definitive.

The National Institute of Aging is funding 21 clinical trials to try to determine which types of games might improve factors like memory and attention and reduce the long-term risk of developing dementia. A series of studies involving nearly 3,000 people funded in part by the NIA suggested that the benefits of an exercise program requiring quick observations and quick decisions appeared to help older people 10 years later and reduce their 29% risk of dementia.

Training in the study consisted of 10 initial 60-75 minute sessions where people played games of speed and recall, and eight later recall sessions. The study was not originally designed to assess dementia risk, according to Dana Plude, associate director at the National Institute on Aging. But the results are a big reason for his interest in cognitive training, and the NIA is now funding a $7 million clinical trial to further test the results.

Brain training games can be fun but frustrating, regardless of your age and mental stamina. Apps usually charge a monthly or annual fee; some offer a workout routine that can be customized.

CogniFit, one such app, offers online cognitive assessments and brain training for $19.99 per month for its 20-game basic plan and $29.99 for its 60-game premium plan. He suggests users spend 10-15 minutes three times a week on non-consecutive days to boost their cognitive scores.

Double Decision is sold by Posit Science, whose games are commercially available and have been used in studies funded by the US Department of Defense, NIA and others.

The goal of dual decision is to gradually increase the amount of visual information a brain can take in and the speed at which it processes information – abilities that typically decline with age. Repeated play trains the brain to think and react faster, focus better and remember better, says Michael Merzenich, scientific director of Posit Science.

In the exercise, two different cars appear in the middle of a screen with a Route 66 sign floating around the edge. One of the cars and the traffic sign flash on the screen and then disappear. A player must remember which car they just saw and the location of the road sign. The game speeds up and adds distractions like a herd of cows or dozens of traffic signs.

“Brain health is manageable,” says Dr. Merzenich. “We should treat brain health as seriously as our physical health.”

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