Brain workout: Older adults can take part in a USF study that is showing benefits in fight against cognitive decline

By Barbara Melendez
Inside the USF Cognitive Aging Lab. Credit: Aimee Blodgett, USF News

(Medical Xpress) -- If physical exercise can strengthen muscles, can mental exercise strengthen brains?  And if so, for how long?

It appears the answer is yes and for several years, according to University of South Florida researchers. Older adults who are interested in trying it out for themselves can take part in a study now being conducted at USF’s School of Aging Studies in the College of Behavioral and Community Sciences.

A team of researchers is investigating treatments to ward off the cognitive declines associated with what is considered normal aging and even Alzheimer’s disease.  Prevention or delaying the onset of either or both are the goals of having elderly people work out with a computerized brain fitness program designed to improve their cognitive skills.

The workout equipment consists of a computer station – and that’s it. Research assistants provide one brief training session and the participants identify a variety of visual and auditory targets designed to engage their mental faculties.

“Experience is not necessary and it’s pretty easy to use,” according to Jerri Edwards, an associate professor in the School of Aging Studies in the USF College of Behavioral and Community Sciences.  She’s the principal investigator working in collaboration with fellow Associate Professor Ross Andel and Professor Jennifer J. Lister, studying the effects of giving the regular exercise.

Edwards has more than 12 years of experience designing and executing large-scale NIH-funded clinical trials in cognitive aging involving more than a thousand older adult subjects and found promising evidence that cognitive training improves everyday function and prolongs mobility.

“We’re examining processing speed or mental quickness, to see how the training helps to improve the brain’s reaction time. With training our study participants get better and better at paying close attention to what they see and hear,” she said.

Edwards went on to explain, “Mild cognitive impairment may be a transitional phase, one that we can work with. Recent study findings published in Current Alzheimer Research show that 10 sessions of the program we’re using  improves cognitive abilities with effects lasting up to five years. The program was successful among a wide range of persons with mild cognitive impairment (also known as isolated memory impairment or incipient dementia) including those with and without memory problems.”

According to Edwards, research has found that this program is also effective for older adults who do not have mild cognitive impairment.  

“Prior study has shown other enduring benefits of the brain fitness program such as enhanced quality of life, improved performance of everyday activities, including driving, and less risk for depressive symptoms,” Edwards said.  “Depression is a predictor of and seems to contribute to cognitive decline, but this brain fitness program seems to help with both.”

The USF study is using two of the few software programs – InSight and DriveSharp –  which are now marketed by Posit Science, that have been found to be the most effective in producing results that have transferred to other abilities. 

“Our work on the neurophysiology of aging is being done to compare the effectiveness of different cognitive interventions to find those that work best,” Edwards said.  “We’re looking for the key processes that underlie and mediate training effects on the performance of everyday tasks.  We are using electroencephalography (EEG) to measure brain activity before and after brain fitness training.  We’re looking for training-induced neural changes in the brain to see how they’re related to improvements in performance.”

She added that the study hopes to derive improvements in the effectiveness of cognitive training techniques.  “It’s exciting and extremely gratifying to be part of the process of helping improve their health and well-being and gain greater independence resulting from this kind of fitness training.”

Brain fitness can’t begin too early.

“We know that abilities go through changes throughout our lives and we actually start to see some levels of decline as early as our thirties,” said Edwards.  “We hope to see more research that we trust will help us deliver improved interventions, tailored to people’s needs.”

More information: The brain fitness program is being offered to older adults at the USF Cognitive Aging Lab on the Tampa campus through its research program and it is free of charge.  Adults age 60 or above who are interested in participating should contact the lab at (813) 974-5592 or usfcognitiveagelab@gmail.com

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