Cognitive decline is widely considered to be an unavoidable aspect of normal aging. But researchers at the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas suggest that may not be the case.
In a randomized clinical study involving adults between the ages of 56 and 71, researchers found that after cognitive training, participants’ brains were more energy-efficient, meaning their brains did not have to work as hard to perform a task.
“Finding a non-pharmacological intervention that can help the aging brain to perform like a younger brain is a welcome finding that potentially advances understanding of ways to enhance brain health and longevity,” said Dr. Michael Motes, senior research scientist at the Center for BrainHealth and one of the lead authors of the study.
“It is thrilling for me as a cognitive neuroscientist, who has previously studied age-related cognitive decline, to find that cognitive training has the potential to strengthen the aging brain to function more like a younger brain.”
For the study, 57 cognitively normal older adults were randomly assigned to a cognitive training group, a wait-listed control group, or physical exercise control group. The cognitive training utilized the Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART) program developed at the Center for BrainHealth.
Cognitive training strategies included how to focus on the most relevant information and filter out the less relevant; ways to continually synthesize information encountered in daily life to encourage deeper thinking; and how to inspire innovative thinking through generating diverse interpretations, solutions, and perspectives, the researchers explained.
Because aerobic exercise has been shown to lead to improvements in processing speed and functional changes within the frontal and other brain regions, it was included as one of the study groups, they added.
The cognitive training was conducted over the course of 12 weeks. Participants in the active control physical exercise program exceeded physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes per week for the 12 weeks.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), an imaging technique that measures brain activity, researchers examined all three groups at the beginning (baseline), middle, and end of the study while participants performed computer-based speed tasks in the scanner.
The fMRI results provided evidence that cognitive training improved speed-related neural activity, according to the researchers.
While all groups showed faster reaction times across sessions, the cognitive training group showed a significant increase in the association between reaction time and frontal lobe activity, the study found.
After training, faster reaction times were associated with lower frontal lobe activity, which is consistent with the more energy-efficient neural activity found in younger adults, the researchers noted.
In contrast to the cognitive training group, the wait-listed and physical exercise groups showed significant decreases across sessions in the association between reaction time and frontal lobe activation.
“This discovery of neural efficiency profiles found in the SMART-trained older adults is promising,” said Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, Center for BrainHealth founder and chief director and one of the study’s lead authors.
“If replicated, this work paves the way for larger clinical trials to test the ability to harness the potential of the aging mind and its ability to excel — by working like a younger brain with all the rich knowledge and expertise accrued over time.”
The study was published in Neurobiology of Aging.
Source: The Center for BrainHealth