Friday, August 15, 2014

More on brain games and training - and reversing cognitive decline in aging.

Yesterday I got into playing again with a subscription to the online brain training games developed by Michael Merzenich and his colleagues that I purchased about a year ago. (Merzenich was one of the researchers to find that the adult brain was plastic, could re-wire itself). I have engaged these brain games episodically, but being a lazy person not much motivated by their efforts to urge users on, have each time drifted away. After about twenty minutes of getting into the various games I can feel what must be the brain equivalent of muscle fatigue. An almost-headache, a growing sense of effort, and finally a beginning to tire, slow down and falter. There is no question, however, about the beneficial effects - which I can feel for many days afterwards - of the exercises on my attention, brain speed, short term memory. Several studies have now shown that brain changes induced by training exercises like these can persist for months or years.

I thought I would pass on links to several articles in this area that have been languishing for a long time in my queue of potential post items.

Murphy reviews several studies of the use of vision training games in athletics.

Medeiros does an article in Wired Magazine on Merzenich.

And, Abbott summarizes Gazzaley's work on a game (NeuroRacer) that reverses age-related cognitive decline.

This game is still considered a research tool, and is not released for general use, but the Optic Flow: Navigation game on the site has similar features (simulated highway driving, noting and evaluating moving signs and obstacles).

Here is the abstract from the paper of Gazzaley and collaborators:
Cognitive control is defined by a set of neural processes that allow us to interact with our complex environment in a goal-directed manner. Humans regularly challenge these control processes when attempting to simultaneously accomplish multiple goals (multitasking), generating interference as the result of fundamental information processing limitations. It is clear that multitasking behaviour has become ubiquitous in today’s technologically dense world, and substantial evidence has accrued regarding multitasking difficulties and cognitive control deficits in our ageing population. Here we show that multitasking performance, as assessed with a custom-designed three-dimensional video game (NeuroRacer), exhibits a linear age-related decline from 20 to 79 years of age. By playing an adaptive version of NeuroRacer in multitasking training mode, older adults (60 to 85 years old) reduced multitasking costs compared to both an active control group and a no-contact control group, attaining levels beyond those achieved by untrained 20-year-old participants, with gains persisting for 6 months. Furthermore, age-related deficits in neural signatures of cognitive control, as measured with electroencephalography, were remediated by multitasking training (enhanced midline frontal theta power and frontal–posterior theta coherence). Critically, this training resulted in performance benefits that extended to untrained cognitive control abilities (enhanced sustained attention and working memory), with an increase in midline frontal theta power predicting the training-induced boost in sustained attention and preservation of multitasking improvement 6 months later. These findings highlight the robust plasticity of the prefrontal cognitive control system in the ageing brain, and provide the first evidence, to our knowledge, of how a custom-designed video game can be used to assess cognitive abilities across the lifespan, evaluate underlying neural mechanisms, and serve as a powerful tool for cognitive enhancement.

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