A new study has found promising results for a combined physical and cognitive fitness intervention designed to improve neuroplasticity in older adults. Using a motion-capture video game, the intervention appeared to remedy age-related lapses in attention. The results were published in the journal npj Aging.
With age, cognitive abilities naturally decline. But there is evidence that this decline can be slowed by training. For example, cognitive interventions that take advantage of neuroplasticity have shown potential to improve cognitive abilities in older adults. Additionally, fitness interventions have been found to improve older adults’ cognitive abilities as well as their physical health. This pattern of results suggests that an intervention that combines both cognition and fitness may provide the most cognitive benefits.
“I have a background in kinesiology and was always excited to do a cognitive training study that involved targeted exercises,” said study author Joaquin A. Anguera, director of the clinical division of Neuroscape and associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco. “Some people want to do cognitive training while moving rather than sitting down, and that really resonated with me as a possibility of real benefits given anecdotal stories about games like ‘Dance Dance Revolution’. “
The researchers designed a randomized, placebo-controlled study to test whether the BBT intervention could improve attention and physical fitness in older adults. First, they recruited a sample of 49 healthy elderly people with an average age of 68 and randomly assigned them to one of two groups. One group (24 people) participated in the Body-Brain Trainer, an 8-week on-site, trainer-assisted intervention. The other group (25 people) was an active matched control group who participated in the Mind-Body Trainer, a 6-week home-based training supported by three iOS apps.
Both groups performed a variety of physical and cognitive assessments before and after training. These measures included a vigilance task that tested participants’ ability to stabilize their attention from moment to moment. Forty-one participants also completed a one-year follow-up.
The researchers compared participants’ performance on the attention task before and after the intervention. Participants in the BBT group were found to show significant improvements in attention that persisted after one year. These gains were not seen in the active control group. Additionally, the BBT group showed better performance than a separate cohort of young adults who performed this same attention task but without the training.
“The current results support a compensation effect,” say Anguera and his team, “given that improvements in the BBT group led to higher levels of performance than young adults and suggest that integrated cognitive and physical approaches designed to increase plasticity in neural systems may have the potential to address certain aging-related deficits.
There was also neural evidence of improved attention in the BBT group. Electroencephalography (EEG) recordings taken during the attention task revealed that those who participated in the combined training showed mean frontal theta power equivalent to that of young adults. This neural metric has been associated with sustained attention.
“I was thrilled to see that the participants were showing both behavioral and neural improvements, some of them reaching the level of young adults,” Anguera told PsyPost. “Such findings need to be replicated, but the prospect is quite exciting.”
The combined intervention also improved participants’ fitness levels – the BBT group saw improvements in their balance as well as reductions in diastolic blood pressure after training. Notably, these cognitive and physical benefits emerged after a relatively short training period compared to previous studies of combined interventions. The study authors say this may be because the cognitive and physical components of the intervention were integrated into a video game rather than spread over several days of training.
The results suggest that “there is more than one way to achieve the same result (in this case, cognitive training), and that these types of tools are not the response, but just another tool in his tool belt to try and help his cognitive function,” Anguera said.
It should be noted that the study was limited because the design did not allow researchers to assess whether the Body-Brain Trainer contributed to more positive outcomes than an intervention that focused only on cognitive or physical training.
Anguera said it “would be great to follow this up with a more mechanistic trial where we test this intervention against cognitive training alone as well as physical training alone, to try to see if the possibility of synergistic effects exists beyond that. beyond these control groups. And then to see how it might look in other populations where improvements in attention are generally sought after.
“We were very excited to have a placebo control as expected for this study, because the value of this type of control group is not really well appreciated,” he added. “So hopefully more groups will look to use this kind of control for their studies.”
The study, “Integrated Cognitive and Physical Training Improves Attention Skills in Older Adults,” was authored by Joaquin A. Anguera, Joshua J. Volponi, Alexander J. Simon, Courtney L. Gallen, Camarin E Rolle, Roger Anguera-Singla, Erica A. Pitsch, Christian J. Thompson, and Adam Gazzaley.
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