Seniors’ real-world daily function improved through computer simulation

Older adults who played a computerised memory-training board game for a month have strengthened the area of the brain crucial for planning, everyday functioning and independent living, new research has found.

Older adults who played a computerised memory-training board game for a month have strengthened the area of the brain crucial for planning, everyday functioning and independent living, new research has found.

The study aimed to improve participants’ prospective memory, which referred to the ability to remember and successfully carry out intentions and planned activities during the day, through a training program developed using the computer program Virtual Week.

Nathan Rose
Dr Nathan Rose

Participants in the intervention group performed twice as many prospective memory tasks correctly as those in the control groups and also made significant real-world improvements in activities of daily living following the training, the study by Australian Catholic University (ACU) found.

The findings have resulted in researchers receiving another Australian Research Council grant in partnership with Villa Maria Catholic Homes to follow up on the study with a large randomised control trial.

Prospective memory tends to weaken with age and even though it accounted for between 50 and 80 per cent of reported everyday memory problems, few studies had attempted to train or rehabilitate prospective memory in older adults, said Dr Nathan Rose, lead investigator and ACU psychology research fellow.

“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,” Dr Rose said.

The Virtual Week experience

Virtual Week screen shot 2015
A screen shot from the Virtual Week computer cognitive-training game

The study involved 59 healthy adults aged 60 to 79 playing a 24-level cognitive-training game three times a week for a month, with two levels per session.

Players simulated the course of a day as they moved around the board, required to remember to perform tasks such as taking medication and preparing breakfast. The number and complexity of tasks increased with each level.

Virtual Week participants “made substantial gains in prospective memory performance” over the month, more than doubling the number of prospective memory tasks performed correctly compared to members of the two control groups, which received either a music-based cognitive-training program or no intervention, according to the findings.

The improvements in prospective memory functioning also transferred to more efficient performance on real-world measures for everyday competence for the control group, such as counting change and following medication instructions, while no real-world gains were observed in either control group, the researchers found.

“Our findings demonstrate that short-term training with the Virtual Week game produces cognitive and neural plasticity that may result in real-world benefits to supporting functional independence in older adulthood,” they wrote.

In addition to undertaking a large randomised control trial with Villa Maria Catholic Homes, the research team also received a grant to implement the game-based cognitive training program in patients with chronic heart failure in collaboration with ACU’s Centre for Heart and Mind.

The international research team also included ACU’s Professor Peter Rendell and researchers from Baycrest Health Sciences, the University of Geneva and the University of Memphis.

The study was recently published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

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Tags: acu, cognitive-training, computer-game, nathan-rose, news-tr-2,

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