Regular brain training exercises could help protect people with mild cognitive impairment from developing dementia.
This is according to a new study conducted by researchers from the Brain and Mind Centre at the University of Sydney. Combining outcomes from 17 clinical trials, the team used meta-analysis to assess the efficacy of brain training in dementia prevention and treatment.
Their findings suggest that computerised brain training, which consists of exercises designed to look and feel like video games, can lead to a number of improvements in people with mild cognitive decline. These include memory, learning and attention, in addition to improved mood and self-perceived quality of life.
However, such improvements were not seen in subjects already experiencing dementia.
Involving carrying out mentally challenging exercises on a computer, computerised cognitive training is designed to target very specific cognitive domains. Usually, it will be adaptive, making exercises harder as performance improves.
Published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, the study used meta-analysis - one of the most trusted methods of obtaining medical evidence - to produce its results.
A statistical technique, meta-analysis involves searching for all available studies on a particular question. These studies are then assessed in terms of quality, typically giving more weight to larger and more precise studies, before the results are mathematically combined to produce an overall numerical score.
"Our research shows that brain training can maintain or even improve cognitive skills among older people at very high risk of cognitive decline - and it's an inexpensive and safe treatment," stated leader of the study Dr Amit Lampit from the School of Psychology, explaining that brain training could have an important role to play in dementia prevention.
People with mild cognitive decline are particularly susceptible to dementia, carrying a one in ten risk of developing the condition within 12 months. This risk is elevated among those who are also depressed, which makes the study's indicated improvements in mood and self-perceived quality of life particularly interesting.
The next step will be for the researchers to assess how to translate these clinical findings into practical techniques people can use in their own homes.
Associate professor and leader of the Regenerative Neuroscience Group at the Brain and Mind Centre Michael Valenzuela stressed that he believes new technology will play a vital part in this. He added that investigating this technology and how it can help get the treatment into people's homes is what the team are currently working on.