Brain Training

Neuropsychologist Barbara Sahakian on cognitive training, areas of the brain that get affected in Alzheimer’s disease, and improving cognitive function through games

videos | January 10, 2017

The video is a part of the project British Scientists produced in collaboration between Serious Science and the British Council.

As psychologists we have many different techniques that we can use. Certainly when we are dealing with patients with depression we frequently use techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy. But what we are beginning to realize more and more is that many of these people with neuropsychiatric disorders and brain injury actually have cognitive problems. So what’s being used by psychologists quite frequently now is what we call cognitive training. And that’s the way we can boost cognition and we don’t use drugs to do this, we just do it through the method of getting people to exercise their brain using a fixed technique. Usually cognitive training is delivered on a computer. But what we also found is that healthy people can benefit from this kind of cognitive training.

So, there is a work by Torkel Klingberg at the Karolinska Institute where he showed that doing a cognitive training of working memory in healthy people of a quite an extended period of time will actually lead to changes and activations in the brain, but will also lead to changes in D1 receptors in the brain. So this is really interesting how you can modify these circuits in the brain. And some years ago with my colleague we wrote a paper for the British Medical Journal called “Use It or Lose It”. And it was really all about the fact that we have to work areas of the brain if we want to keep them active. So, in the way that people do crossword, puzzles, Sudoku or other ways to sort of go on lifelong learning courses to really stimulate their brain, this is the very important thing to do. And we really need to do this lifelong.

Neuropsychologist Barbara Sahakian on episodic memory, the symptoms of schizophrenia, and the drugs used in Alzheimer’s disease treatment
We know that cognitive training works. So, people like Til Wykes at the Institute of Psychiatry had actually done meta-analysis, looking at effects of cognitive training along with other forms of rehabilitation on patients with Schizophrenia. And she has been able to show that this training has a moderate effect size on cognition, but also it has moderate effect size on psychosocial functioning. So, by doing this not only do the patients get the benefit of improved cognition, but this has a knock-on effect on the functionality in every day and that their psychosocial functioning improves.

So, the trouble with cognitive training is that usually you have to come in to a hospital starting to do this and frequently you have to have specialized stuff to help you go through the programs and things like this. So, this can be expensive and inconvenient. In my laboratory we thought how can we modify this cognitive training in order to make it fun, enjoyable and easy to access. So what we decided to do is essentially to gamify the cognitive training. In my lab we got a games developer to come and work with us. And we used studies that we had over 20 years to look at the neuropsychological benefits and the neuroimaging benefits of doing these tasks in the areas of the brain that they activated. And one of the tasks that we particularly were interested in was episodic memory. That is the type of memory that we use every day. We know that episodic memory is related to functionality in Schizophrenia and also in Alzheimer’s disease. So we know that if we could boost episodic memory we would probably can boost functional outcome.

And what we did was we used a wizard motif. Everybody knows about Harry Potter and everybody is interested in it and it seemed that that would be really engaging for the people with Schizophrenia who we were trying to boost their memory for. So, we worked with that kind of thing. We utilized the data that we had showing how we could activate that area of the brain. We had already published a paper in Neuropsychologia showing that when people were lying in a scanner (we looked at elderly people and people with mild cognitive impairment) and doing a Paired Associates Learning (PAL) Test we got a nice activation of hippocampal area, so we knew there was a way to stimulate and activate that area of the brain. So we essentially put that into a game. And then we piloted on people with Schizophrenia to make sure that they found it interesting, enjoyable, they got it. Thus, this is a motivating way to improve people’s cognitive function. So, it is essentially the cognitive training that psychologists accept as being very beneficial, but it’s put into a game. And there are games companies now, they call themselves “serious” game companies, where they are trying to work to improve people’s cognitive function through these means in healthy people too. So, it’s a good thing for us to do because everybody likes to play games and we might play the games that are good for us. But of course, not all games are good for us. These games that I am talking about have been developed within evidence base behind them. So, it’s very important that there’s scientific evidence showing that these games do actually work and they are successful.

In this game the way that we decided to do it is very much based on a kind of episodic memory theme. You can fight with wizards and things like that. But basically what you have to do, what the hippocampus in the brain does is remember the location of objects in space. So this game is very much based on that. And what happens is as you remember things you get rewarded with spells that you can then fight against other wizards. And so it is a very engaging type of thing. And the nice thing is that the game is adjusted to help you with your motivation, so that if you’re doing well it pushes you on and you get more challenge for the game and you can gain more things and cast more spells and fight other wizards, then move along the trajectory. But if you are having a difficulty, it’s bringing you back down again. So it’s nicely titrated in the way that games people do to make sure that you’re learning and remembering as much as you can and it keeps giving you more and more levels of difficulty. And you keep encountering different situations with wizards, who are trying to attack you, and you are trying to attack them and then you are successful and you get a lot of rewards for doing that.

What we found was that if we ask schizophrenic patients to train on this test for 8 hours over one month, not only does the episodic memory improve, but we also got improvements in the activities of daily living. So that when we looked at the global functioning through the GAF test we found that they also improved on that. So it wasn’t just limited to episodic memory, they also got improvements on the psychosocial functioning with the test. When we asked people with Schizophrenia to play that game for 8 hours over one month we found that not only did they get gains on episodic memory, but we also found that their psychosocial functioning improved. So the game really had benefits that weren’t just restricted to the memory, but they also take place in psychosocial functioning in every day activities.

Physicist Srinivas Sridhar on non-invasive methods of monitoring, localizing the source of seizures, and brain waves
What we find is that obviously nowadays people are so interested in their physical health and they monitor their physical health. Frequently they have FitBeats to measure their steps when they’re running and in their phones they measure their sleep. So, people are very keen to measure their physical health. But what we are finding is that unfortunately as yet we are not using this new technology enough to improve our cognition, our brain health. So it would be good when we have more Apps on phones where people can monitor their cognition, and if their notice a change, then they can start to improve it. And that would be very beneficial. And they can also use games or apps to improve their cognitive function and hopefully their mental well-being as well.

People are going to play games. So, they should play games that are good for their brain health and also that are motivating maybe improve their positive outlook on life, because we can adjust the way we see the world. That what the cognitive behavior treatment is all about. But you need to use games when there is an evidence base to them, because some games don’t really have the same effects. There is no neuropsychological or neuroimaging evidences that show that they are having effects on behavior and on the brain. These games that are based on a long history of data do have. One way that we can use games is both for people with neuropsychiatric disorders and brain injury. For instance, we are currently working with people with mild cognitive impairment this is the early stage of Alzheimer’s disease, and we are working with the specific group, which is called amnestic mild cognitive impairment. And their progression to Alzheimer’s disease is now recognized.

If you can activate those areas of the brain that are first affected in Alzheimer’s disease, such as a hippocampal formation, you may find that you can keep those areas’ function for longer and it will delay the worst outcomes of some of these disorders.

We also know that in healthy people there is a deterioration in the cognition over time. So we function at the highest level in our 20s and then it starts to decline. And of course, as healthy people we have a lot of ways, strategies (it’s called experience) of how to overcome these problems – for example, that memory is not always as good as it used to be. But these games may be a great way to actually activate these areas of the brain and not just in the area of memory but we can also think about attention, because attention is so important.

Neuroscientist Sylvain Baillet on the Human Brain Project, implementing the brain in silico, and neural networks
Frequently we need sustained attention to do really well on a task. Because it requires that we have to focus on that and get the most out of it. But now we find that a lot of people because we are multitasking, because we are looking at our phones and computers, different things are happening. And we find it hard to maintain our focus of attention for long periods of time, which may be necessary for certain jobs. And the benefits may also be for other groups, so we can think about ADHD where there are problems in sustained attention and concentration. And they have a trouble sticking or focusing on one thing. For this reason they are frequently given medications when they are in the moderate or severe end of the spectrum. So for mild ADHD you can just treat this with psychological treatment, such as CBT or more directed psychological methods for ADHD. But when it gets to be more moderate and severe, frequently drug treatment is used like methylphenidate (Retalin), which affects dopamine and noradrenalin in the brain. But we may be able to, especially in children, reduce the need for these drugs or maybe reduce the dose and frequency with which they are dosed. If we could also cognitively train them to be able to focus their attention and perform better, maybe sometimes we will have a combination of the treatments, which may be the most effective to get the best outcomes for people with ADHD and other disorders.

FMedSci, DSc, Professor, Department of Psychiatry, Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, Cambridge Centre for Brain Repair, Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre, University of Cambridge
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