Games That Push the Brain to the Limit Get Scientists’ Attention in Fight Against Dementia

Games That Push the Brain to the Limit Get Scientists’ Attention in Fight Against Dementia

You may be able to prevent or delay dementia with changes in diet and exercise, research has found. Now, another potential tool for staving off dementia is gaining the attention of researchers: specially designed video games.

Companies are marketing a crop of digital games that promise to train the brain, with a battery of exercises for speed, attention and memory. The researchers are also working on them. Scientists are studying whether such “brain training” games can help prevent or slow age-related brain decline.

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

Many scientists say it’s too early to say whether games can actually prevent dementia, and question whether they can lead to long-term improvements in memory and daily functioning. But some scientists believe the games are promising enough to spend millions of dollars studying them.

Neuroscientists have long recommended traditional games, such as bridge, Sudoku, and crossword puzzles, to keep the brain fit. However, crossword puzzles don’t help people process information quickly, a skill whose age-related decline can lead to dementia.

Newer games, like one called Double Decision developed by scientists, try to stimulate and accelerate neuronal activity and slow down the deterioration of brain physiology that occurs with age.

In a healthy brain, myelin, a layer of insulation, it keeps nerve fibers taut and densely packed, says Chandramallika Basak, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. Our myelin wears down and sheds with age, which interferes with memory and clear thinking, she says.

In recent imaging studies, his team and scientists at the University of Iowa found that people who played brain-training games maintained or increased myelin in some parts of the brain compared to control groups who played other types of games that didn’t. they required speed or augmentation. difficulty levels.

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

Dementia is characterized by age-related losses in memory, attention, and speed of thought that are severe enough to interfere with daily life. Alzheimer’s, a neurodegenerative disease, is the most common type of dementia. Women over the age of 45 have a 20% chance of developing Alzheimer’s during their lifetime, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Men of the same age have a 10% chance.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine identified cognitive training, which includes anything from computerized exercises to puzzles to bridges, as a promising area of ​​research for dementia intervention. 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 shown to prevent dementia, says the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health. Studies so far have returned mixed results on the effectiveness of games; doubts remain about its ability to produce long-term practical improvements.

Still, the research to date has been encouraging enough, and dementia so prevalent, that scientists are studying gaming more. The World Health Organization in 2019 recommended cognitive training for older adults as a way to reduce the risk of dementia, although the science behind this is not definitive.

The National Institute on Aging is funding 21 clinical trials to try to find out which types of games might improve things like memory and attention and reduce the long-term risk of developing dementia. A series of studies of nearly 3,000 people funded in part by the NIA suggested that the benefits of a course of exercises that require quick observations and quick decisions appeared to help older people 10 years later and reduce the risk of dementia by 29%.

The training in the study consisted of 10 initial sessions of 60 to 75 minutes where people played speed and recovery games, and eight booster sessions later. The study wasn’t initially designed to assess dementia risk, according to Dana Plude, deputy director of the National Institute on Aging. But the results are a key reason for her interest in cognitive training, and the NIA is currently 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 toughness. Apps typically charge a monthly or annual fee; some offer a workout routine that can be customized.


What “brain exercises” do you do to stay alert? Join the conversation below.

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. It suggests that users spend 10 to 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 offered commercially and have been used in studies funded by the US Department of Defense, the NIA, and others.

The goal of Double Decision is to progressively increase the amount of visual information a brain can take in and the speed at which it processes information, capabilities that normally decline with age. Repeated play trains the brain to think and react faster, focus better and remember more, 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 in the periphery. One of the cars plus the road 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 road signs.

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

Double Decision is designed to improve attention, memory, and processing speed by forcing the brain to observe and make split-second decisions. Content hosted by BrainHQ

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