Can brain training ward off dementia?  New studies may identify some answers.  - Boston Globe

Can brain training ward off dementia? New studies may identify some answers. – Boston Globe

This ghost prompted Tardif to volunteer for a first-of-its-kind US experiment, known as the POINTER study, which looks at whether computer-based brain exercises are similar to video games, along with a healthy diet, physical exercise, and social interaction. Dementia can be warded off for those thought to be most at risk.

Butler Hospital and Merriam Hospital, both in Providence, operate one of five POINTER study sites nationwide, and are recruiting volunteers from Greater Boston and Rhode Island.

“Maybe I can do something to reduce my chances of getting it,” Tardif said. “yew [researchers] Getting something from me can help someone else, that’s cool.”

An estimated 5.8 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease – a number that is expected to rise sharply as baby boomers age. But as hopes for an imminent, effective Alzheimer’s drug dwindle, studies testing the protective power of computer-based brain exercises, as well as lifestyle interventions, have taken on an urgent new character.

“We’re not going to have a successful treatment that will come and end Alzheimer’s anytime soon,” said Dr. Stephen Salway, professor of neurology and psychiatry at Brown University’s Warren Albert School of Medicine and co-leader of the Rhode Island Trial site. .

The POINTER trial aims to enroll 2,000 people across the country, including about 400 in New England. Volunteers must be between 60 and 79 years old, generally exercise less than three times a week, and have slightly elevated blood pressure, cholesterol or blood sugar, or a family history of memory problems.

Participants are assigned to one of two groups: a structured group that receives regular instruction and training to adopt a Mediterranean-style diet with more fruits and vegetables, and to increase social interactions, methods that may be helpful in warding off cognitive decline.

“If we can control the risk factors for heart disease and stroke, we will keep your brain healthy,” Salway said.

They are also expected to adhere to specific computer brain training exercises and prescribed aerobic exercises, strength training, and stretching.

The other group receives more general information about exercise, good nutrition, and the benefits of engaging in socially and mentally stimulating activities, such as learning a new skill or hobby.

The researchers will evaluate both groups of volunteers every six months for two years, measuring changes in cognition and physical health.

Brain exercises involve a computer program, known as BrainHQ, that is designed to be challenging in very specific ways. Using a video game-like approach, it tests and strengthens participants’ attention, brain processing speed, memory, spatial navigation, and people skills.

The POINTER study, which received $35 million from the Alzheimer’s Association to recruit and manage trial sites, is expected to receive up to an additional $47 million from the National Institute on Aging to scan participants’ brains. scans, It is hoped that it will provide important clues as to why interventions are effective or ineffective.

Dana Blood, deputy director in the Division of Behavioral and Social Research at the National Institute on Aging, who oversees several of the institute’s dementia-related studies. “So we need this kind of research to answer these kinds of questions.”

Over the years, evidence has been mixed about whether certain forms of cognitive training may be more effective than others in preventing cognitive decline. Some studies, for example, have suggested that doing crossword puzzles or other problem-solving puzzles may help, while others have found little effect.

But results from a landmark study, known as the ACTIVE trial, found that healthy older adults who received specific brain training, called processing speed, had a 29% lower risk of developing dementia 10 years later than the untreated control group.

(Processing speed requires participants to identify a target in the middle of the screen while simultaneously observing a target in the periphery—even when they blink on the screen for a very brief period.)

Various brain exercises may help with everyday activities, such as driving, remembering people’s names and finding your car keys.

Blood, of the Institute on Aging, said his agency is funding trials that take different approaches to reveal which activities might be most effective.

“Some people who want to do these kinds of things may prefer to do them individually, and will be uncomfortable in a group, and others will only do it if they are in a group,” he said.

“Let’s try to do these kinds of training activities in different ways and see which one has the momentum,” Blood said. “And it probably won’t be one-size-fits-all.”

Working on this theory, the Blood department also recently funded a small, one-year study in California testing whether brain exercises embedded in an already popular community fitness program are effective in consistently drawing people to participate.

She awarded $465,000 to Posit Science, the company that created BrainHQ, to develop a brain-boosting program with YMCA in San Francisco that also includes training on better nutrition, fitness, stress reduction, improved sleep and social interactions.

“The point of this scholarship is, let’s take the known science to reduce dementia risk and let’s build an approach that can be administered in any YMCA, in church bases, or in a network of any health-based community centers across the country,” Henry Mahnek, President CEO of Post Science.

Another new trial funded by the Institute on Aging called PACT, is underway in Florida. The $44 million, five-year trial will enroll 7,600 people and study whether computerized brain training exercises can reduce the risks of mild cognitive impairment and dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.

Finally, the National Institute on Aging supports 423 active clinical trials for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia, with nearly double those involving non-pharmaceutical interventions, such as those in the YMCA and in Rhode Island, compared to those involving drugs.

Heather Snyder Both approaches may prove effective, said the vice president of medical and scientific relations at the Alzheimer’s Association.

“Anyone who has lived with someone in their family who has Alzheimer’s disease, you understand the challenges that the family faces, to improve the quality of life but also to move forward, so that people have more time to do things with their family and have the best quality of life possible.”

This sentiment resonates with Tardif, the grandfather of North Attleboro who lost his mother to Alzheimer’s and participates in the Rhode Island Point experiment.

He said his favorite part of the experience is the group conversations with the other volunteers, who offer tips on healthy recipes, such as adding spinach to fruit smoothies, as well as encouragement to stick to the program when he’s tempted to skip some activities.

“I’m trying to get better to avoid Alzheimer’s, and having these people help me on that journey,” he said. “I hope that helps my brain.”


Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com Follow her on Twitter Tweet embed.


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