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Needed: funding for innovative research on slowing cognitive decline via cognitive training

Posted Aug 09 2010 5:14am

I was really interested in the recent critique of the BBC brain training experiment by Dr. Elizabeth Zelinski . I think Owens et al (2010) was a critical piece of research which was not conducted in the right way and was focusing on the wrong sample population.  I totally agree with the comments by Dr. Zelinski regarding the potential for sample bias and the use of some questionable cognitive measures. However, I would like to take this critique further and question whether the study was value for money when there are other studies which cannot achieve funding but would, in my opinion, show the criticism/scepticism of the use-it-or-lose-it theory.

I think there is not enough criticism about the age of the sample population used in Owens et al. (2010). We have conclusive cognitive and neurological evidence that cognitive/neurological plasticity exists in young adults. There is also adequate evidence that neuroplasticity is evident in older adults. The critical point which I want to make about the sample population in Owens et al. study is that it did not target the correct sample population, that is, older adults who are at risk of cognitive/neuronal atrophy. It does not matter if younger adults improve on brain training tasks, or if skills picked up by younger adults from brain training are not transferred to other cognitive domains, simply because younger adults are good at these skills/cognitive functions. Therefore there is a possibility that ceiling or scaling effects mask the true findings in Owens et al. (2010), as indicated by Zelinski.

The recruitment of the sample population is also very concerning and I do not feel that their control group was appropriate. I fully agree with Zelinski in that the majority of participants were sceptics and there was no monitoring of testing due to the use of using the internet for testing. However I also feel that the control group had an activity which was inappropriate. Salthouse (2006) has illustrated how using the computer/internet has been rated as very cognitively demanding. Therefore I would argue that any investigations into brain training, particularly with older adults, should use the pen and paper method of testing (accepted that Owens et al. did not test older adults).

In line with Zelinski I do not believe that the measures of cognitive functioning were appropriate. The reason for this is that in healthy aging the functions which decline are episodic memory (e.g. Dunlosky & Salthouse, 1996), metacognition (e.g. Souchay & Isingrini, 2004) and executive function (e.g. Perfect, 1997). If we wish to investigate whether brain training can attenuate cognitive decline in healthy aging we need to measure these cognitive functions using techniques which are objective and empirically supported. I do not believe that the tests used in Owen et al. (2010) did this. Furthermore, in line with Salthouse (2006) we need to show a significant age X activity interaction for these cognitive functions.

I have other reservations about the research, but my final point is with regards to the between-subjects design. With my colleagues (Chris Moulin & Catriona Morrison) we have shown that it is possible to use a within-subjects design to investigate the use-it-or-lose-it theory. Demographic factors can then be controlled for and incorporated into the analysis on the second stage of analysis. My argument is that previous research (e.g. Karbach & Kray, 2009; Glisky & Glisky, 1999) have demonstrated that cognitive interventions only work for only certain individuals who can be regarded as at risk. Therefore, there is a need to compare a between-subjects and within-subjects design for older adults, taking into account cognitive functions which decline with age and unfortunately this is not what Owens et al. (2010) did.

Question: At the moment a couple of colleagues at Leeds University and myself are trying to get funding to conduct independent trials on Nintendo Brain Training vs cognitive training approaches, but it’s proving really difficult to get any sponsorship. May any SharpBrains reader got any ideas as to who might be interested?

Nick Almond is a Research Student at University of Leeds Institute of Psychological Sciences . Following completion of a BSc (Hons) degree at the Institute, Nick started a PhD to investigate cognitive decline in healthy ageing using a combination of approaches including self-report, longitudinal and empirical neuropsychological measurements. Nick is a member of the Leeds Memory group and his supervisors are Dr Chris Moulin and Dr Catriona Morrison. Recently he co-organised the PSYPAG Human Neuroscience and Neuropsychology Conference.

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