Can games paired with brain stimulation increase working memory?

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Playing special brain training games and receiving targeted brain stimulation can help boost working memory. Image credit: Ana Luz Crespi/Stocksy.
  • A person’s working memory is crucial to functioning in daily life.
  • Older people and those who have Parkinson’s disease, dementia, or who have had a stroke may experience a decline in their working memory.
  • A new study shows that a combination of cognitive exercises and electrical brain stimulation can significantly strengthen working memory.

A person’s working memory can decline with age or if they have dementia, Parkinson’s disease or have had a stroke. When this happens, the loss can affect their daily quality of life and turn even simple tasks into often demoralizing challenges.

Prof. Gail Eskes explained working memory to Medical News Today, and why it is so important.

“Working memory is the brain’s mental scratchpad,” she noted, “and it can be used to remember and work with a variety of different types of information.”

“For example,” she said, “you use working memory when you remember someone’s phone number after looking it up, or remember a picture of a map of the city to plan a way to get to your destination.”

“Your working memory capacity is important for all kinds of activities,” said Prof. Eskes, “such as reading a newspaper, doing math in a restaurant to figure out a hint, making decisions and solving problems.”

Prof. Eskes is a member of the Department of Psychiatry, the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, and the Department of Neurology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. She is a co-author of a new study that describes a possible means of helping people regain their working memory.

Researchers from Dalhousie, the University of Trento in Italy and Birmingham University in the UK contributed to the study, which found that cognitive training combined with transcranial direct current stimulation significantly enhances working memory.

Dr. Jacqueline Becker, a clinical neuropsychologist and health services researcher at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine in New York, who was not involved in the study, said MNT that “with working memory training, the brain can rewire and reorganize itself as a result of repeated training and practice.”

“This is based on neuroplasticity, which refers to the brain’s ability to change and adapt as a result of an experience,” explained Dr. Becker.

Similarly, she said:[t]transcranial direct current stimulation may also affect brain plasticity by activating and increasing activity within specific brain networks.”

In the study, the direct stimulation is provided by a light 2 milliAmpère electrical current applied to the scalp.

The study appears in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

The study authors refer to their system as COGNISANT, which stands for “cognitive needs and skills training.”

The study’s senior author is assistant professor Dr. Sara Assecondi from the Center for Mind/Brain Sciences at the University of Trento. She explained how the two aspects of COGNIZANT work together: “In our study, working memory training and brain stimulation target the same brain area—the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—an area associated with processing spatial information.”

“The repetition of the same cognitive task, at a difficulty level just enough to be challenging but still engaging, promotes brain plasticity […] Brain stimulation further increases plasticity, giving cognitive training an extra ‘kick’, especially effective in those individuals who need it most.”

– Dr. Sara Assecondi

The memory training proposed in the study takes place online. Prof. Eskes, who developed it, explained how it works.

“With our software, you can train using a variety of information, such as hearing and working with numbers or words, or seeing and working with things in space, or landscape images, etc.,” she said. MNT.

“This training software is designed to help any adult who wants to improve their working memory capacity or efficiency. It can be done anywhere using a computer with Internet access,” she noted.

Study participants ranged in age from 55 to 76, a range that includes potential recipients who may possess a range of online skills.

“We’ve tested it with adults and patients of all adult ages, and usually the training can be done independently, although different people have different levels of comfort with computer use,” Prof Eskes said.

“For this study,” explained Prof. Eskes, “we used a therapeutic game we’ve called ‘N-Igma’ and it uses the ‘n-back’ technique, where players have to keep track of a stream of information and indicate when they see a match to a topic they saw ‘n’ turns ago”, where “n” represents an unspecified numeric value.

“The number of subjects they have to keep track of adapts to their performance, so they work at a challenging, but not impossible, level. To keep it game-like and interesting, we also give them lots of feedback and they can keep track of their scores as they go, the researcher added.

“These therapeutic games are intensive and challenging, but we also try to keep it engaging and fun,” Prof. Eskes told us.

“We are developing approaches to promote healthy aging, so our technique could be really useful for anyone who is starting to experience some form of memory decline,” said Dr. Assecondi.

“Although they are characterized by great variability, the older healthy adults are more likely to show a lower working memory, and this is when the combination of working memory training and brain stimulation is more effective,” she told us.

“From the results of the study, it can be inferred that older adults (over age 69) with executive dysfunction may benefit the most,” noted Dr. Becker.

It may also be that COGNIZANT is most suitable for people whose working memory has fallen beyond a certain threshold, although what that threshold might be is unclear at this time.

“With the available data,” said Dr. Assecondi, “it is difficult to estimate an ‘optimal’ level of working memory loss for the approach to be effective. Indeed, this would be important information for future development and use in the healthy population.”

“We would have to collect a large amount of data to get a fairly representative sample of the healthy population, and that’s really something we’d be interested in exploring,” she added.

“With my group,” she said, “using state-of-the-art statistical approaches, I’m working on ways to predict the effectiveness of cognitive intervention from baseline abilities, but we’re still in the early stages.”

“There is still a lot of research to be done,” acknowledged Dr. Assecondi, “but from our work and that of other laboratories around the world, we know that the combination of cognitive training and brain stimulation holds promise, not only in terms of slowing cognitive decline in healthy adults, but also in clinical populations.”

“I hope to contribute to the development of an effective, low-cost technique that can be used at home and tailored to the specific needs of the individual, and reach those who would otherwise not be able to access such technology,” she said.

The authors are now working with the University of Birmingham and Dalhousie University to identify partners who can help bring COGNIZANT to market.

“Home care technology will ultimately empower individuals to take therapy into their own hands,” concluded Dr. Assecondi, “and allow them to age according to their conditions.”

Can games paired with brain stimulation increase working memory?

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