A brain training program using computers has been shown to reduce the risk of dementia in seniors. So has stimulating the brain with a mild electrical current.

What would happen if doctors used both cutting-edge therapies together? That’s what researchers from the U.K., Italy and Canada wanted to find out. Here’s what you need to know…

One of the most important parts of memory is working memory. It’s critical to your brain’s ability to temporarily store and manipulate information so tasks that involve learning, reasoning, and comprehension can be successfully executed. Unfortunately, working memory is one of the first parts of memory to decline with age.

If the decline is extensive, it causes real problems in everyday life. For instance, a task you planned for first thing in the morning never gets started; you forget items during a trip to the grocery store; conversations become stressful because you can’t remember what you wanted to say.

Resolving this problem has been the focus of scientists at three universities. They’re testing brain training and brain stimulation programs together to see if they will better help stop memory loss when used together. And the team uncovered some good news…

Combined Therapies Outperform Each Used Alone 

The scientists first tested these combined therapies in 84 young adults. They gave each one a fun and engaging task that tests working memory on a computer screen. (The task can also be used as a training tool to improve working memory.)

In addition, the young adults received transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) which the scientists administered via a mobile wireless device. This form of stimulation has also been shown to enhance working memory by delivering a low electrical current to the brain.

Results revealed the two-pronged strategy improved working memory over and above either strategy used alone. However, and this is important, the researchers only saw benefits in individuals with an initial low working memory capacity.

In other words, the worse your working memory, the better your results!

Memory Improves Even In The Oldest Patients 

The findings suggested to the researchers that older adults, especially those whose working memory is impaired due to normal or abnormal aging, would probably benefit even more than young people.

So, for their new study, published in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience in October, they put their speculation to the test. They enrolled 28 healthy men and women aged 55 to 76 and split them into two groups. Both groups did the computer training exercises for 20 minutes a day over five days.

During the training one group received tDCS while the other group received sham stimulation, with the current switched off. The researchers measured participants’ working memory capacity before the study began and two days after completion.

Results demonstrated that working memory improved significantly in all participants, regardless of age or whether they received tDCS. Importantly, and as expected, the combination of training and tDCS showed particular benefit in older people with lower initial working memory. This subset included people aged 69.5 to 76. The advantage was evident from the first day of training and became statistically significant by the end of training.

Senior author Dr. Sara Assecondi explained, saying, “…our approach uses online tools, and delivers brain stimulation via a device that can be used anywhere, with the dose determined remotely by the physician.”

Her colleague Professor Gail Eskes added: “Intensive exercises at just the right difficulty are important for increasing brain capacity or efficiency. And the game-like aspects increase motivation and make it easier to stick with the challenging sessions.”

Another member of the team, Professor Kim Shapiro, commented, saying, “Although cognitive decline in the elderly is an inevitability, approaches such as [ours], in combination with regular physical exercise, can stem this decline and provide individuals with a higher quality of life.”

  1. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-84298-3
  2. https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/news/2022/therapeutic-games-and-brain-stimulation-
  3. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnagi.2022.1009262/full