ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (Jan. 8, 2019) - What if solving brain games and puzzles on a computer could reduce the chances of developing dementia such as Alzheimer’s or delay the debilitating loss of function associated with the disease?
That’s the question researchers from the University of South Florida (USF) are seeking to answer through a pioneering new study that will test a training regimen designed to improve brain function. Using a $2.7-million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the researchers are developing a clinical trial for up to 1,600 older adults, who will learn a mental exercise routine focused on processing information to target cognitive improvements over time.
“This is a large primary prevention trial to examine if computerized cognitive exercises will reduce the risk of dementia,” said Dr. Elizabeth Hudak, Research Assistant Professor at USF Morsani College of Medicine. “It is the first of its kind study that will train adults on these exercises.”
As one ages, cognitive functions associated with thinking and memory can decline. Dementia is a general term for a decline that interferes with daily life, and Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia.
An estimated 5.7 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s today. By 2050, the number is projected to rise to nearly 14 million, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
The primary investigators of the new study “Preventing Alzheimer’s Disease with Cognitive Training” are Dr. Jerri Edwards with the USF Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences and Dr. David Morgan with Michigan State University and former head of USF Health Byrd Alzheimer’s Center and Research Institute. They will oversee four training facilities, three in Tampa Bay and one in Michigan, that will each host up to 400 older adults.
One of the training sites will be located on the campus of USF St. Petersburg (USFSP).
“What we have learned is that the types of activities people do as they age really matter,” said Dr. Jennifer O’Brien, Associate Professor of Psychology who will supervise data collection and analysis at USFSP. “Those that target these cognitive functions, that continue to challenge a person and adapt with performance across time are beneficial to improving quality of life.”
The clinical trial at USF will consist of a variety of brain games on a computer in which participants are asked to indicate what they saw or heard and solve puzzles. Each participant will visit a training facility three times to learn how to follow the mental regimen. Over the course of three years, they will complete a total of 45 hours of computerized training exercises on their own. Researchers will then monitor for cognitive improvements or signs of decline.
Prior studies have shown such training is an effective way to reduce chances of developing dementia. In 2017, findings from the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study showed that among nearly 3,000 healthy older adults, those who completed 11 or more computerized sessions were up to 48 percent less likely to develop dementia across a 10-year period than adults who did no exercises at all.
“Cognitive training enhances mental quickness and visual attention, improves gait speed and balance, promotes safer and prolonged driving mobility and maintains health and well-being, including protection against depression,” said Dr. Alisa Houseknecht, the coordinator of the clinical trial at USF.
The researchers will recruit adults 65 years of age and older who are willing to commit to the exercise training and are not experiencing dementia or other forms of neurological disease. A family history of Alzheimer’s does not disqualify a person.
Ultimately, researchers hope this short-term study will show enough feasibility for a longer, more rigorous clinical trial in the future. If the researchers can enroll 1600 older adults in the trail, the research team will apply for a larger grant to train and monitor a cohort of participants for five to seven years. For the follow-up study, neuroimaging of the brain and genetic testing will be incorporated to get a better understanding of which individuals are more likely to develop dementia and would benefit from this training.
“We will be looking across time to see who ends up with dementia and who does not,” said O’Brien. “We estimate that even if this intervention delays onset of dementia by only one year, that would be 9.2 million fewer cases across the next 30 years.”
About USF St. Petersburg
The University of South Florida St. Petersburg (USFSP) is a separately accredited, research-active institution within the USF System. USFSP offers more than 40 undergraduate and graduate programs in three colleges: Arts and Sciences, Business, and Education. USFSP is recognized for its significant commitment to community involvement and civic engagement by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. For more information, visit www.usfsp.edu.