According to new research, older people may be able to improve their working memory by combining online therapeutic games with a non-invasive brain stimulation technique.
According to new research, combining online therapeutic games with a non-invasive brain stimulation technique may help older people improve their working memory.
Working memory is essential for people to function normally in daily life. This volatile type of memory stores and manipulates a limited amount of information in a short period of time, allowing people to interact with their surroundings in an effective and efficient manner. Working memory capacity typically declines with age, causing daily difficulties in people with Parkinson's disease, dementia, and stroke.
Scientists and clinicians from the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, and the University of Trento in Italy have developed a new technology to counteract this decline.
The technology is known as cognitive needs and skills training, or COGNISANT, and research published in Frontiers in Ageing Neuroscience shows it can be especially beneficial for older people with low working memory capacity (WMC).
The online therapeutic exercises, designed to improve working memory, attention, and vigilance, are packaged in an engaging interface that online game or App users will recognize. During training, brain stimulation was delivered via a mobile wireless device that delivers a small (2milliAmpère) transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS).
The study included healthy people aged 55 to 76 who were divided into two groups. Over a five-day period, both groups played the online games for 20 minutes per day. While one group received tDCS as well, the other group wore the tDCS device, which looked like a swimming cap, but did not receive tDCS.
The researchers assessed baseline working memory capacity (WMC) before and after the study. They discovered that WMC improved significantly in all participants, regardless of age or treatment with tDCS.
The combination of training games and tDCS was especially beneficial in older people with lower initial working memory. The advantage was evident from the first day of training and became statistically significant by the end of training in this subset of people aged 69.5 to 76 years.
The paper was senior authored by biomedical engineer Dr Sara Assecondi, who worked on developing the technology with cognitive neuroscientist Professor Kim Shapiro from Birmingham's School of Psychology and Centre for Human Brain Health, using online therapeutic games developed by neuropsychologist Professor Gail Eskes from Dalhousie's departments of Psychology & Neuroscience, and Psychiatrist.
The brain exercises were designed by Professor Eskes' clinical research, which focuses on training to improve and repair cognitive functions. She stated: "Intensive exercises at the appropriate level of difficulty are essential for increasing brain capacity or efficiency. Furthermore, the game-like elements boost motivation and make it easier to stick with the challenging sessions."
"Although cognitive decline in the elderly is an inevitability," said Professor Shapiro, whose research focuses on attention and memory. "However, approaches such as COGNISANT, in combination with regular physical exercise, can stem this decline and provide individuals with a higher quality of life."
In a previous study, the researchers demonstrated that combining tDCS with strategies for performing tasks requiring working memory can help young people with low WMC improve their performance by allowing them to implement strategies that they would not have been able to devise otherwise.
"The effects seen in both studies were strong," Dr. Assecondi added, "with the first study indicating that the combination of stimulation and strategy instruction can improve WM performance in younger adults and the second study indicating that strategy use may be facilitated by stimulation in older participants."
The researchers intend to conduct additional studies to investigate other forms of brain stimulation that may be even more effective, and they are currently wrapping up a study evaluating the benefits of COGNISANT in post-stroke patients, with publication expected soon.
The University of Birmingham provided the materials. Please keep in mind that content may be edited for style and length.
Sara Assecondi, Rong Hu, Jacob Kroeker, Gail Eskes, and Kim Shapiro are among the cast members. A preliminary study found that when combined with working memory training, transcranial direct current stimulation benefits older adults with lower working memory capacity. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, DOI: 10.3389/fnagi.2022.1009262, 2022.