How memory training can help to defer Alzheimer's symptoms

What if you knew you had a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease and you found out there was something you could do, that would help to postpone the onset of any first symptoms?

Would you want to find out more about what it was you could do? Well, there is something positive we can all do to help build our cognitive reserve and protect ourselves from cognitive decline. It’s called memory training.

The last few years have seen a growing number of brain training products being released onto the market and the big question everyone has wanted to know was “Do brain training programs actually make a difference?”

We now know from neuroscience that our brains are “plastic” i.e. they have the ability to continue to form new connections between neurons throughout life. It used to be thought that this plasticity declined with age, but this is not the case. Our brain is continually rewiring itself at some level in response to the information it receives each day, even in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Proponents of the brain training programs have long stated that their purpose was to promote lasting positive change i.e. improvement in cognitive function but clinical evidence to support the claims has been slow in building.

Now, Canadian researchers have provided scientific support using brain imaging that memory training utilises the brains ability to use healthy brain cells not yet affected by Alzheimer’s, to take over areas that have been compromised.

In a small study of 15 healthy adults and 15 with mild cognitive impairment, MRI scans of brain activity were undertaken 6 weeks and 1 week prior to memory testing and again one week after.

The results? Those with mild cognitive impairment showed a 33% increase in correct answers following training. People with MCI are x10 more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. The scans confirmed that prior to testing, those subjects with MCI had less activation than normal in those brain areas normally associated with memory. After training this group then showed increased activity not only in the traditional areas associated with memory but also new areas usually associated with language processing, spatial and object memory and skill leaning. Healthy brain had taken over the damaged area.

Ref: S. Belleville, F. Clement, S. Mellah, B. Gilbert, F. Fontaine, S. Gauthier. Training-related brain plasticity in subjects at risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. Brain, 2011; DOI: 10.1093/brain/awr037