HEALTH SENTINEL: Indiana University researchers making advancements in Alzheimer’s and dementia treatment, lowering risk of disease

One computer-based speed of processing activity on BrainHq requires the person to choose which of two vehicles had previously flashed on the screen while at the same time clicking on the quadrant where a road sign had appeared in the periphery. As the user gets better at the activity, the speed is increased, additional signs are added and the background of the scene becomes more complicated. (Photo courtesy of BrainHQ)
This screen shot is of an easy level of a speed of processing training exercise scientifically proven to help protect against development of dementia. When these objects flash briefly on the computer screen, users identify which of two vehicles they see in the center as well as where the sign is located in the periphery. When this level is mastered, pictures are shown more quickly and additional objects are in the periphery and background. (Photo courtesy of BrainHQ)
Dr. Frederick Unverzagt, professor of psychiatry at Indiana University School of Medicine-Indianapolis and one of the lead researchers in the Advanced Cognitive Training in Vital Elderly, or ACTIVE, clinical trial.(Photo courtesy of Jennifer Boen)

If Alzheimer’s has not already affected you or someone close to you, it is lurking around the corner, a progressive disease that has no cure waiting to show up in someone you love. Every 66 seconds, someone in this country is diagnosed with the disease, which is the most common form of dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Much research is taking place to find ways to slow its progression or lessen certain behavioral symptoms. But what if we could identify or develop ways to prevent getting the disease in the first place?

Researchers at Indiana University say findings from a 10-year study, which also involved scientists from the University of South Florida and Penn State University, have identified an intervention — specifically, a brain training activity called speed of processing — which scientifically showed evidence of lowering the risk of development of dementia by nearly 30 percent.

Similar studies have shown how various cognitive training, physical exercises and even social engagement can help maintain and enhance cognition and function in daily activities, but Dr. Frederick Unverzagt said, “This is the first time a study has shown a protective effect against dementia” using specific brain training. Unverzagt is professor of psychiatry at Indiana University School of Medicine-Indianapolis and one of the lead researchers in the Advanced Cognitive Training in Vital Elderly, or ACTIVE, clinical trial.

Unverzagt emphasized only speed of processing training showed a statistically significant protective effect. Two other types of cognitive training — memory and reasoning — had minimal benefit in lowering risk of dementia. Even then, it wasn’t until the 10-year mark that a scientifically notable protective effect with speed of processing was seen; five years into the study, no protective differences were found between the three groups randomly chosen for cognitive training. A fourth group, the control, received no type of brain training.

The science behind speed of processing lies in tapping into a part of the brain that is involved with implicit rather than explicit memory, Unverzagt said. The latter is conscious thought, recalling what time your doctor’s appointment is or naming state capitals. “That is more like classroom learning.

“Implicit memory is procedural learning, learning by doing,” he explained. Riding a bike or driving a car are two examples. “Speed of processing is completely implicit,” he said, and involves simultaneously taking in multiple information — visual, auditory or through other senses — processing it and making judgments or decisions.

Speed of processing training used in the Active trial was developed by San Francisco-based Posit Science, which focuses on brain fitness software and services. According to the company’s website, www.brainhq.com, at the helm of Posit are neuroscientists: Michael Merzenich, co-developer of the cochlear implant and a pioneer in brain plasticity research, and Henry Mahncke, a leading researcher in health care and video games.

One computer-based speed of processing activity on BrainHq requires the person to choose which of two vehicles had previously flashed on the screen while at the same time clicking on the quadrant where a road sign had appeared in the periphery. As the user gets better at the activity, the speed is increased, additional signs are added and the background of the scene becomes more complicated.

Of the 2,800 participants enrolled in the study, 1,200 were still involved at 10 years. The speed of processing group was 29 percent less likely to have developed dementia at 10 years compared to the control group. Some reduced risk of dementia was seen in the memory and reasoning training groups, but results were not statistically significant.

Researchers also found participants who agreed to do booster, or extra training, at certain points in the trial had an even greater reduction in dementia risk.

Though 29 percent reduced risk may not sound like much, if the disease is framed not only by number of people diagnosed but also by its financial burden — 18.2 billion hours of unpaid care giving provided to loved ones with Alzheimer’s in 2016, with care valued at more than $230 billion — it is a big deal.

Next steps may include adding aerobic exercise or increasing certain nutrients along with speed of processing training, Unverzagt said, noting, “The concept we’re looking at is increasing the brain reserve capacity, having a bigger brain with more neurons that are better aligned and better connected – a brain with more horsepower” that can ward off the ravages of dementia.

Factbox:

Check out your brain’s speed of processing with several free activities available at www.brainhq.com.

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