Computer Game Can Aid Memory in Older Adults

A new study has shown that just one month of training on a new computer game can help older adults strengthen prospective memory, the type of memory necessary for planning, everyday functioning, and independent living.

Older adults who played the cognitive-training game, called Virtual Week, “more than doubled” the number of prospective memory tasks performed correctly compared to seniors who performed other activities, such as taking music classes, according to researchers at the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences in Toronto, Canada.

Prospective memory, which refers to the ability to remember and successfully carry out intentions and planned activities during the day, tends to weaken with age, the researchers noted. It accounts for between 50 percent to 80 percent of reported everyday memory problems, they added.

The study incorporated a “train for transfer” approach, utilizing a training intervention to have participants practice performing real-world prospective memory tasks in simulated every day settings and then assessing whether the cognitive gains transfer to successful performance at home, the researchers explained.

“As the world’s population ages, it is becoming increasingly important to develop ways to support successful prospective memory functioning so that older adults can continue to live independently at home without the need for assisted care,” said Dr. Nathan Rose, lead investigator of the study and now a research fellow in the School of Psychology at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne.

“While these results are encouraging, they represent a first step in exploring the efficacy of prospective memory training with the Virtual Week training program,” added Dr. Fergus Craik, a memory researcher based at Baycrest and senior author on the paper, which was published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 

“Perhaps the most exciting aspect is that training in the lab resulted in improvements in real-life memory tasks. This lab-to-life transfer has been difficult to achieve in previous studies.”

For the study, researchers developed a version of a computerized board game called Virtual Week in which players simulate going through the course of a day on a circuit that resembles a Monopoly board.

Players move their tokens through a virtual day. Along the way, they have to remember to perform several tasks, such as taking medication or taking their dinner out of the oven at appropriate times.

Researchers recruited 59 healthy adults between the ages of 60 and 79, who played 24 levels of the game over a one-month period.

The difficulty of the game increased over the course of training in terms of the number of tasks to be completed each day, the complexity of tasks, and interference with prior tasks. The difficulty was adjusted to each individual’s level of performance on the previous day.

Prospective memory performance measures were taken before the training began and after, then compared to two control groups; one of which received a music-based cognitive training program and the other which received no intervention. The researchers also developed a “call-back” task in which participants had to remember to phone the lab from home during their every day activities.

The researchers found large training gains in prospective memory performance in the group that played the Virtual Week game. Moreover, these gains transferred to significant improvements in real-world prospective memory, including on tasks such as counting change and following medication instructions, according to the researchers.

Brain imaging (EEG) on a subset of the groups showed some evidence of neuroplasticity — brain changes — that correlated to correct prospective memory performance, the researchers report. These brain changes were particularly associated with the ability to stop oneself from carrying on with ongoing activities and switch to performing an intended action at the appropriate time.

The early findings are so promising that 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 control trial.

The research team was also awarded a grant with colleagues in the Centre for Heart and Mind at the Australian Catholic University’s Mary MacKillop Institute for Health Research to implement the game-based cognitive training program in patients with chronic heart failure, a group that demonstrates severe prospective memory problems associated with self-care.

Source: Baycrest Health Sciences