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expert reaction to ‘brain training’ app for mild cognitive impairment

Publishing in The International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology scientists report the development of a ‘brain-training app’ that could help improve mild cognitive impairment.


Prof. Robert Howard, Professor of Old Age Psychiatry, UCL, said:

“Despite a lot of published studies, we still really don’t know if cognitive training or exercises can do anything positive to improve cognition in older people or people with Alzheimer’s disease. This was an uncontrolled and open study, and so it is difficult to know how much significance we should place on the small improvements in neuropsychological test scores observed in the mild cognitive impairment participants who underwent the training. What is perhaps most interesting and significant is the fact that the patients enjoyed the cognitive training. So, even if (as I suspect will be the case), better designed double-blind and controlled trials eventually show no specific benefits from this training, at least the participants will have had fun taking part.”


Dr Tara Spires-Jones, Reader and Chancellor’s Fellow, and Interim Director at Centre for Cognitive and Neural Systems, University of Edinburgh, said:

“This work shows that 21 people with early signs of memory impairment benefitted from playing a specialised memory game on an iPad for one month. While this type of brain training will not ultimately be able to prevent or cure memory diseases like dementia, they are a promising way to improve early memory symptoms of the disease. Activities that engage your brain like learning and certain kinds of “cognitive training” increase connections between brain cells.   More connections provide what is called a cognitive reserve and make the brain able to withstand the damage caused by diseases like Alzheimer’s for longer than if you have fewer connections.   The results reinforce previous work in larger groups of people showing that cognitive training improves memory in people with mild cognitive impairment.”


Dr Carol Routledge, Director of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:

“The fear of a dementia diagnosis is at an all-time high, and so there is a lot of interest in cognitive brain training and other activities that could help maintain memory and thinking ability as we get older. While staying mentally active as we age has been reported to be beneficial for our brains, the effects of specific brain training games is not clear cut. This small study suggests that the game developed by the team in Cambridge could hold some benefit for people with mild memory problems, but without more research we can’t tell if the same benefits could be achieved with any other electronic game – something that wasn’t looked at in this study. As people in the study attended clinic to play the game, it will also be important to establish whether similar benefits will be found from people playing the game at home. Effects could be due, in part, to the participant’s interaction with the research team which may have had an impact above and beyond what the control group experienced when they were in the clinic for their usual treatments.

“Although there is no sure fire way to prevent dementia, the best current evidence indicates that staying physically and mentally active, eating a healthy balanced diet, not smoking, drinking in moderation and keeping weight, cholesterol and blood pressure in check are all good ways to support healthy brain ageing.”


* ‘Cognitive training using a novel memory game on an iPad in patients with amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI)’ by Savulich et al. published in The International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology on Monday 3rd July.


Declared interests

Prof. Howard: “I have no relevant conflicts of interest.”

Dr Spires-Jones: “I am chair of the grant review board at Alzheimer’s Research UK.”

Dr Carol Routledge: “no relevant conflicts of interest”

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