- A person’s working memory is critically important for functioning in daily life.
- Older people and those who have Parkinson’s disease, dementia, or who have had a stroke may experience a degradation of their working memory.
- A new study has found that cognitive exercises combined with electrical brain stimulation can substantially improve working memory.
A person’s working memory may decline with age or if they have dementia, Parkinson’s disease, or have had a stroke. The loss can impact their daily life and turn simple tasks into difficult, often demoralizing, challenges.
Prof. Gail Eskes explained the working memory. Medical News Today Why it is important.
“Working memory is the brain’s mental scratchpad,” she noted, “and it can be used to keep in mind, and work with, a variety of different types of information.”
“For example,” she offered, “you use working memory when you are keeping in mind someone’s phone number once you’ve looked it up, or keeping in mind an image of a map of the city in order to plan a way to get to your destination.”
“Your working memory ability is important for all kinds of activities,” said Prof. Eskes, “such as reading a newspaper, doing math at a restaurant to figure out a tip, making decisions, and problem-solving.”
Professor Eskes is a member of Dalhousie University’s Department of Psychiatry and Neuroscience. A new study co-authored by Prof. Eskes describes a way to help people regain their working memories.
The study involved researchers from Dalhousie and Trento Universities in Italy as well as Birmingham University in the United Kingdom. It found that cognitive training combined with transcranial direct current stimulation significantly improves working memory.
Dr. Jacqueline Becker, a clinical neuropsychologist and health services researcher at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine in New York, who was not involved in the study, told MNT that “with working memory training, the brain can rewire and reorganize itself as a result of repeated training and practice.”
“This is based on neuroplasticity, which refers to the brain’s ability to change and adapt as a result of an experience,” Dr. Becker explained.
Similarly, she said, “[t]ranscranial direct current stimulation can also affect the brain’s plasticity, by activating and increasing activity within specific brain networks.”
In the study, the direct stimulation is provided by a light 2 milliAmpère electric current applied to the scalp.
The study is available in Frontiers of Aging Neuroscience.
The study authors refer to their system as COGNISANT, which stands for “cognitive needs and skills training.”
The study’s senior author is assistant professor Dr. Sara Assecondi of the Center for Mind/Brain Sciences at the University of Trento. She explained how the two aspects of COGNISANT work together: “In our study, working memory training and brain stimulation target the same brain area — the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — an area associated with processing spatial information.”
“The repetition of the same cognitive task, at a level of difficulty that is just enough to be challenging but still engaging, promotes brain plasticity […] Brain stimulation further boosts plasticity, giving cognitive training an extra ‘kick,’ particularly effective in those individuals who need it more.”
– Dr. Sara Assecondi
Online memory training is the method used in this study. Professor Eskes, the creator of it, explained its workings.
“With our software, one can train using a range of information, like hearing and working with numbers or words, or seeing and working with items in space, or landscape images, etc,” she told MNT.
“This training software was designed to help any adult who wants to enhance their capacity or efficiency of their working memory. It can be done anywhere using a computer with access to the internet,” she noted.
Participants ranged in age between 55 and 76 years. This includes potential beneficiaries who might have a range online skills.
“We have tested it with adults and patients of all adult ages, and usually the training can be done independently, although different people have different levels of comfort with computer use,” said Prof. Eskes.
“For this study,” explained Prof. Eskes, “we used a therapeutic game we have named ‘N-Igma,’ and it uses the ‘n-back’ technique in which the players must keep track of a stream of information and indicate when they see a match to an item they saw ‘n’ turns ago,” where “n” represents an unspecified numerical value.
“The number of items they have to keep track of adapts to their performance, so they are working at a challenging, but not impossible, level. To keep it game-like and interesting, we also give them lots of feedback, and they can keep track of their score as they go along,” the researcher added.
“These therapeutic games are intensive and challenging, but we also try to keep it engaging and fun,” Prof. Eskes told us.
“We develop approaches to promote healthy aging, so our technique really may be useful to anyone who starts to experience some kind of memory decline,” said Dr. Assecondi.
“Although characterized by huge variability, the older healthy adults are the more likely they are to show a lower working memory, and that is when the combination of working memory training and brain stimulation is more effective,” she told us.
“From the results of the study, it can be inferred that older adults (greater than 69 years of age) with executive dysfunction may derive the most benefit,” noted Dr. Becker.
COGNISANT may be most suitable for those whose working memory is below a certain threshold. However, it is not known what this threshold might be.
“With the data available,” said Dr. Assecondi, “it’s difficult to estimate an ‘optimal’ level of working memory loss for the approach to be effective. Indeed, this would be important information for future development and use within the healthy population.”
“We would need to collect a large amount of data to obtain a fair representative sample of the healthy population, and this is indeed something we would be interested in exploring,” she added.
“With my group,” she said, “using state-of-the-art statistical approaches, I am working on ways to predict the effectiveness of cognitive intervention from baseline abilities, but we are still in the early stage.”
“There is still much research to do,” acknowledged Dr. Assecondi, “but from our work and that of other laboratories around the world, we know that the combination of cognitive training and brain stimulation holds promise, not only in slowing down the cognitive decline of healthy adults, but also in clinical populations.”
“I hope to contribute to developing an effective low-cost technique that can be used at home and tailored to the individual’s specific needs, reaching those who would otherwise be unable to access such technology,” she said.
To bring COGNISANT on the market, the authors are currently working with Dalhousie University and University of Birmingham.
“Home-care technology will ultimately allow individuals to take therapy into their own hands,” concluded Dr. Assecondi, “empowering them to age according to their terms.”