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Cognitive activities may help protect the brain from Alzheimer’s

Association in humans between games and brain size reinforces animal findings

University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health

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Tues., July 22, 2014                                                                                                                                                            (608) 890-5641


MADISON, Wis. — Playing games such as checkers, cards, or board games or putting puzzles together could help keep you mentally sharp in old age and may even be beneficial in staving off diseases like Alzheimer’s.

A new University of Wisconsin-Madison study found that game playing and other fun activities that require some mental energy during middle age may prevent structural brain or cognitive changes related to Alzheimer’s disease.

This observational study by researchers at the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute and the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC) has uncovered a strong association between such game play and brain volumes in brain regions known to be targets of Alzheimer’s disease. The study, presented at the 2014 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, asserts that participants who engaged more frequently in cognitive activities like game play have higher brain volumes compared to peers who played fewer or no games.

Brain volume—the size of the brain and its substructures—decreases slightly with age, but volume decreases more among people who later develop degenerative diseases of the brain like Alzheimer’s or other dementia.

“Interestingly, these findings indicate that there are some specific regions of the brain where we’re seeing this association with game play,” said Ozioma Okonkwo, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “Some of these regions, like the hippocampus, are hallmark areas we know to be affected by Alzheimer’s disease.”

The study followed 329 participants enrolled in the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer’s Prevention (WRAP), which looks at middle-aged asymptomatic adults with and without a family history of Alzheimer’s disease. Participants completed a cognitive activity measure during enrollment and underwent a neuropsychological battery of tests biannually. They also had regular MRI scans.

“Something that could be suggested to anyone concerned about their thinking abilities would be to just improve their lifestyle overall. That would include engaging in cognitive activities, improving their diet and maintaining a physical activity regimen. All those things together would benefit any individual, even those who have such concerns,” said Stephanie Schultz, a research specialist at the ADRC and lead author of the study.

While this observational study shows only an association, not a cause, animal studies provide a level of control that is hard to achieve with human participants, and the results have been striking.

“If you’re only looking at the human studies published to date, you might be surprised to learn that the evidence for this is stronger than you might think,” said Okonkwo.  “This line of work has a lot of empirical data with animals. Based on the research, there is little question that animals placed in an enriched environment have a very different outcome, including a reduced risk of developing what looks like Alzheimer’s, compared to animals in a less enriched environment.”

“With humans, we’re not able to attain that same level of control as we can with animals. You can’t tell people that they need to play a specific game and then go home and not do what they’ve always done,” he said. “People will read books, watch TV, go to sporting events and participate in other activities. All of those are types of cognitively-stimulating activities, whereas with rats or mice, they do that, and only that, which you allow them to do in the lab.”


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