Category Archives: Cognitive training

Mindfulness and Alzheimer’s treatment

I came across a new abstract on PubMed from a conference paper describing a study of the efficacy of mindfulness training in Alzheimer’s Disease. The full-text is not available yet (and is in Spanish), but an English-language abstract is currently available.

According to the abstract, researchers and health professionals in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, in the Canary Islands, recruited 127 individuals identified as probable Alzheimer’s patients. The participants were assigned to one of three experimental conditions (mindfulness, progressive muscular relaxation or “cognitive stimulation”) or a control group. After two-years, participants in all groups, except the mindfulness group, showed small declines in cognitive skills. This research appears to be the basis for one of the author’s thesis research (Dr. Domingo Quintana-Hernández), which is described in more detail on his ResearchGate profile.

Normally, I think of mindfulness training as a technique for producing stress-reduction, rather than a technique to improve, or preserve, cognitive function. However, a number of studies have found anatomical differences in the brains of meditators and non-meditators (see a recent meta-analysis by Fox and colleagues) which include the hippocampus.  The hippocampus is a critical structure for declarative memory in humans, and is damaged in Azheimer’s patients. And, several studies have shown that meditation can prevent age-related cognitive decline (see the recent review by Gard, Hölzel and Lazar). Last year, a small study of 14 participants with mild cognitive impairment (who are are at increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease) conducted by Dr. Rebecca Wells and colleagues) found that a mindfulness-based stress reduction program (MBSR) was effective in preventing decline in measures of brain activity and measures of hippocampal atrophy over the 8 week training intervention.

I would be interested in seeing more information on this study when the full conference paper is published, but the basic idea that mindfulness training could help preserve cognitive function in Alzheimer’s patients is fascinating, and worth more study.

Casual games for better cognition?

Are casual video games good “exercise for the brain”? TL;DR A study last year by Oei & Patterson (2013) found significant benefits after casual video game training on several measures of cognition, in areas of attention, cognitive control and working memory. But, whether you should pick up a new iPhone game just for brain “exercise” is still an open question.

With the current popularity of “brain-training” games (think of Lumosity’s ubiquitous ads), it is interesting to note that relatively little research has tested if video games, especially those targeting casual gamers, provide any cognitive benefits. The main exception would be for action games (first-person shooters), which have been found to produce improvements in visual attention (see Green & Bavelier’s 2003 Nature paper).

Recently, more studies have been published which have tested the cognitive benefits of a range of casual video games on wider range of cognitive skills. Last year, Oei and Patterson, of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, published a study in PLoS ONE (available online for free). This was an interesting study, where participants completed baseline tests (of attention, spatial memory, working memory, and visual search). Afterwards, they randomly assigned participants to play one of 5 games (action, match-3, simulation, hidden-object and “memory matrix”). Each of the games was downloaded from iTunes, and participants played the games using their own iPod or iPhone. Continue reading