Those Brain Training Computer Programs Might Help Your Memory But Can They Keep Dementia Away?

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Computer-based brain training can boost memory and thinking skills in older adults but many programs are ineffective, according to Australian research.

A study, published today in the journal PLOS Medicine, shows the use by older adults of computer-based brain training can lead to improvements in memory and speed.

However, it has no impact on attention or executive functions such as impulse control, planning and problem solving.

More than 330,000 Australians are living with dementia and more than 100 million people across the globe will be affected by 2050.

Promising evidence now indicates that engaging in challenging mental activities can help lower the risk of dementia.

A brain training industry has quickly developed, tapping into the anxieties of baby boomers now at retirement age.

The research by the Regenerative Neuroscience Group at the Brain and Mind Research Institute at the University of Sydney reveals that engaging in group-based brain training with a trainer is effective in healthy older adults.

However, self-directed brain training at home had no therapeutic effect on the brain.

“Our results send a key message to the public,” says Associate Professor Michael Valenzuela at the University of Sydney.

“They show that brain training carried out in a centre can improve cognition in older adults, but commercial products promoted for solo training use at home just don’t work. There are better ways to spend your time and money.”

The research team combined outcomes from 51 randomised clinical trials, including almost 5,000 participants, using a mathematical approach called meta-analysis.

“This is a very large number of clinical trials and the results were conclusive,” says Valenzuela.

“We now understand how to prescribe brain training based on the highest standards of medical evidence.”

Part of this prescription is the frequency of training, also identified as an important factor.

Training one to three times a week is effective but training more than this neutralised any benefits.

The brain’s plastic mechanisms may saturate if training is too frequent. Like strenuous physical exercise, the researchers recommend at least one rest day between training sessions.

Valenzuela says it is important to put the results in perspective.

“Modest gains are to be expected,” he says. “This is not a magic bullet and we still don’t know if this type of activity can prevent or delay dementia. Much more research is needed.”

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