Author(s): Mahncke HW, Bronstone A, Merzenich MM
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Abstract Aging is associated with progressive losses in function across multiple systems, including sensation, cognition, memory, motor control, and affect. The traditional view has been that functional decline in aging is unavoidable because it is a direct consequence of brain machinery wearing down over time. In recent years, an alternative perspective has emerged, which elaborates on this traditional view of age-related functional decline. This new viewpoint--based upon decades of research in neuroscience, experimental psychology, and other related fields--argues that as people age, brain plasticity processes with negative consequences begin to dominate brain functioning. Four core factors--reduced schedules of brain activity, noisy processing, weakened neuromodulatory control, and negative learning--interact to create a self-reinforcing downward spiral of degraded brain function in older adults. This downward spiral might begin from reduced brain activity due to behavioral change, from a loss in brain function driven by aging brain machinery, or more likely from both. In aggregate, these interrelated factors promote plastic changes in the brain that result in age-related functional decline. This new viewpoint on the root causes of functional decline immediately suggests a remedial approach. Studies of adult brain plasticity have shown that substantial improvement in function and/or recovery from losses in sensation, cognition, memory, motor control, and affect should be possible, using appropriately designed behavioral training paradigms. Driving brain plasticity with positive outcomes requires engaging older adults in demanding sensory, cognitive, and motor activities on an intensive basis, in a behavioral context designed to re-engage and strengthen the neuromodulatory systems that control learning in adults, with the goal of increasing the fidelity, reliability, and power of cortical representations. Such a training program would serve a substantial unmet need in aging adults. Current treatments directed at age-related functional losses are limited in important ways. Pharmacological therapies can target only a limited number of the many changes believed to underlie functional decline. Behavioral approaches focus on teaching specific strategies to aid higher order cognitive functions, and do not usually aspire to fundamentally change brain function. A brain-plasticity-based training program would potentially be applicable to all aging adults with the promise of improving their operational capabilities. We have constructed such a brain-plasticity-based training program and conducted an initial randomized controlled pilot study to evaluate the feasibility of its use by older adults. A main objective of this initial study was to estimate the effect size on standardized neuropsychological measures of memory. We found that older adults could learn the training program quickly, and could use it entirely unsupervised for the majority of the time required. Pre- and posttesting documented a significant improvement in memory within the training group (effect size 0.41, p<0.0005), with no significant within-group changes in a time-matched computer using active control group, or in a no-contact control group. Thus, a brain-plasticity-based intervention targeting normal age-related cognitive decline may potentially offer benefit to a broad population of older adults.
This article was published in Prog Brain Res
and referenced in JBR Journal of Interdisciplinary Medicine and Dental Science