Computer games help boost memory

Published: Monday 16th November 2015

Just one month of training on a specialised computer brain game helps older adults significantly strengthen prospective memory – a type of memory that is crucial for planning, everyday functioning and independent living – new research from Australian Catholic University (ACU) has found.

Seniors who played the cognitive-training game more than doubled the number of prospective memory tasks performed correctly compared to control groups that performed other activities such as music classes.

Prospective memory refers to the ability to remember and successfully carry out intentions and planned activities during the day; it also tends to weaken with age. Prospective memory accounts for between 50-80 per cent of reported everyday memory problems, yet few studies have attempted to train or rehabilitate prospective memory in older adults.

"As the world's population ages, it is becoming increasingly important to develop ways to support successful prospective memory functioning so that older adults can continue to live independently at home without the need for assisted care," said Dr Nathan Rose, lead investigator and ACU Psychology Research Fellow.

Researchers developed a version of a computerised board game called "Virtual Week" in which players simulate going through the course of a day on a circuit that resembles a Monopoly board. Players roll a virtual die to move their token through a virtual day and have to remember to perform several prospective memory tasks, such as taking medication or taking their dinner out of the oven.

59 healthy adults, aged 60 to 79, took the training, playing 24 levels of the game over a one-month period (three sessions a week, two levels per session).

The difficulty of the game increased over the course of training in terms of the number of tasks to be completed per day, the complexity of tasks, and/or interference with prior tasks.  Pre and post training prospective memory performance measures were taken and compared to two control groups – one of which received a music-based cognitive training program and the other which received no intervention.

Researchers found large training gains in prospective memory performance in the group that played the game (relative to control groups). Moreover, these gains transferred to significant improvements in real-world prospective memory, including performance on simulated activities of daily living following the training. These activities included counting change and following medication instructions. The researchers also developed a "call-back" task in which participants had to remember to phone the lab from home during their everyday activities.

Brain imaging (EEG) on a subset of the groups showed some evidence of neuroplasticity  which correlated to correct prospective memory performance, particularly with the ability to stop oneself from carrying on with ongoing activities and switch to performing an intended action at the appropriate time.

The early findings are so promising that the researchers have been awarded a grant from the Australian Research Council, in partnership with Villa Maria Catholic Homes, to follow up on the study with a large randomised control trial. The research team was also awarded a grant with colleagues in ACU’s Centre for Heart and Mind to implement the game-based cognitive training program in patients with chronic heart failure, a group that demonstrates severe prospective memory problems associated with self-care.

The full research team included ACU’s Professor Peter Rendell and leading researchers from Baycrest Health Sciences, the University of Geneva and the University of Memphis.

The study was supported in part by grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Baycrest's Centre for Brain Fitness, the Australian Research Council, and the Roland Ernst Foundation.  It is published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

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