Cognitive impairment is when the brain is slow at processing information. It’s a symptom that appears in people with Multiple Sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia and other illnesses — but it also shows up in head injuries, depression, fevers or simply as we age.
Scientists asked a group of about 200 MS patients to play computer games for 12 weeks, or about 60 hours in total. Some played regular puzzle games thought to sharpen the brain, such as a sudoku, while others played adaptive brain games developed by a group called PositScience.
We want to be challenged — but not too much.
The PositScience games use something known as “adaptive cognitive training.” That means the game adjusts its speed or difficulty level in real time, based on how well players perform on simple tasks like remembering a sequencing of numbers or identifying a target on the screen.
“If you slow down, it slows down a bit, and that’s the way you get the most possible out of your training,” Leigh Charvet, director of Multiple Sclerosis research in the Department of Neurology at NYU Langone Medical Center, said in a phone interview. “If things are too hard, we give up — or if it’s too easy, we get bored. This feature keeps it right where you need [it] to be.”
Patients who played the adaptive games reported significant improvement in their thought processing, leading Charvet to believe that these games could revolutionize how diseases are treated. For one, they can be done at home instead of at a doctor's office.
“[This is] much more than you can do one-on-one with a clinician,” she said. “The fact that people are doing this at home is a big deal for us.”
We should build more connections in our brain
Physical exercise increases our resistance to a long list of bodily ailments, and the brain works in a similar way. By doing these exercises, patients are building new skills and effectively developing parts of their brain.
“The theory under all of this is brain plasticity,” Charvet said. “You’re enhancing and enriching the neural networks that underlie the cognitive functioning in the brain.”
More research will give scientists an idea of how often people should train or how long the positive effects will last. The games themselves may also grow with time, Charvet said.
“We’re going to learn more and more through algorithms — how the game can adapt to get the optimal benefit out of any training time. We just want to make this as efficient and individualized as possible.”