Brain game could help older adults remain independent longer

This computer screen shot shows the "Virtual Week" brain game. (Credit: Baycrest Health Sciences)
This computer screen shot shows the "Virtual Week" brain game. (Credit: Baycrest Health Sciences)

One month of training on a computer brain game helps older adults significantly strengthen prospective memory, according to an international team of scientists. This type of memory is crucial for planning, everyday functioning and independent living.

Older adults in the study who played the cognitive-training game more than doubled the number of prospective memory tasks they performed correctly compared with members of control groups that performed other activities, such as music classes. Results of the study, which was led by the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences, Toronto, were posted online today in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, ahead of print publication.

In the study, scientists developed a version of a computerized board game called "Virtual Week," in which players simulate going through the course of a day on a board that resembles a Monopoly board. Players roll a virtual die (one of a pair of dice) to move their tokens through the virtual day. Along the way, players have to remember to perform several prospective memory tasks, such as taking medication or taking their dinner out of the oven, at appropriate times.

Fifty-nine healthy adults, aged 60 to 79 years, underwent the training, playing 24 levels of the game over one (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. The difficulty was based on each individual's level of performance the previous day. Pre- and post-training prospective memory performance measures were taken and compared with two control groups, one that received a music-based cognitive training program and one that received no intervention.

Relative to the control groups, the scientists found large training gains in prospective memory performance in the group that played the game. 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.

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 randomized controlled trial.

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