Scientists have designed a brain training app that might boost episodic memory in people living with amnestic mild cognitive impairment – a potential precursor to dementia.

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A new study shows that a brain training game can improve cognition for seniors with mild cognitive impairment.

Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) refers to the stage between the normal forgetfulness or cognitive decline that is a natural part of aging, and the more serious memory problems that may signal the imminent onset of dementia.

Some have referred to this transitional phase as “amnestic mild cognitive impairment” (aMCI), which may manifest as everyday forgetfulness and motivational deficits.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom developed a brain training app called “Game Show,” with the aim of improving cognition and motivation in people with aMCI.

The new study was led by Dr. George Savulich, and the findings were published in The International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology.

Dr. Savulich and colleagues performed a randomized controlled trial involving 42 participants aged 45 and above.

All participants had received a diagnosis of aMCI.

The participants were assigned randomly to either the so-called cognitive training group – where they played the game on an iPad for 8 hours over a period of 4 weeks – or the control group, where they did not play the game but just visited the clinic as usual.

Those in the cognitive training group played the game in 1-hour sessions.

The brain training app invites the player to participate in a game show where they have to correctly associate various geometric patterns with different locations.

As part of this “gamified” approach, each time a player correctly identifies and associates the geometric patterns, they win gold coins.

Also, the complexity of the game – i.e. the number of geometric patterns that have to be identified – increases proportionally with the skills of the player. The better they get at it, the more challenging the game becomes, which keeps the players motivated.

The researchers also asked the participants to undergo a series of cognitive tests, including one that measured their visuospatial memory, as well as a test that measured their apathy and enjoyment.

The study revealed that those who played the game improved their memory score by 40 percent.

More specifically, the participants were able to correctly identify the locations previously presented to them, thus proving an improved episodic memory.

Episodic memory refers to the brain’s ability to retain memories and details about certain events – or episodes – that took place either in the distant or the more recent past. It is also the kind of memory that enables us to remember where we parked our car or what we ate for dinner last night.

In addition to improved episodic memory, the trial found that those in the cognitive training group had better visual memory compared with the controls.

Finally, playing the game boosted the participants’ self-confidence, enjoyment, and motivated them to carry on playing.

Patients found the game interesting and engaging and felt motivated to keep training throughout the 8 hours. We hope to extend these findings in future studies of healthy aging and mild Alzheimer’s disease.”

Dr. George Savulich

Prof. Barbara Sahakian, co-inventor of the game, also weighs in. “Good brain health is as important as good physical health,” she says. “There’s increasing evidence that brain training can be beneficial for boosting cognition and brain health, but it needs to be based on sound research and developed with patients.”

“It also needs to be enjoyable enough to motivate users to keep to their programs,” Prof. Sahakian adds. “Our game allowed us to individualize a patient’s cognitive training program and make it fun and enjoyable for them to use.”

Next, the scientists plan to conduct a large-scale trial to investigate whether these cognitive benefits last over time.

Learn how brain-stimulating activities could reduce the risk of cognitive impairment.