Cognitive decline is a normal part of aging, but as the world's population of older adults grows, researchers are looking at ways to prevent it.
Cognitive decline is a normal part of aging, but as the world's population of older adults grows, researchers are looking at ways to prevent it.

Study will look at combining cognitive training and electrical stimulation of the brain

By Alexis Blue
Sept. 19, 2016
Gene Alexander
Gene Alexander

Researchers from two of the U.S. 
states with the fastest-growing
populations of older adults will
partner on a study of a possible
intervention for preventing,
halting or reversing age-related
cognitive decline.

The University of Arizona, the
University of Florida and the
University of Miami have been awarded a five-year, $5.7
million grant from the National Institute on Aging to study
whether a combination of computer-based cognitive
training exercises and direct electrical stimulation to the
brain can help improve cognitive functioning in older

The work may provide new insights into how to prevent
or combat cognitive decline associated with normal
aging, and in turn could improve quality of life for the
world's rapidly growing population of older adults.

The UA will receive $1.47 million for the project, which
is being led by the University of Florida. All three
institutions involved in the research are home to Evelyn
F. McKnight Brain Institutes, funded by the Evelyn F.
McKnight McKnight Brain Research Foundation, which
is dedicated to studying age-related memory loss.

Gene Alexander, professor of psychology, neuroscience
and physiological sciences, and a member of the UA's
Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute, will lead the work
done at the UA.

The multi-institutional study will look at the combined
effect of two techniques: the delivery of computer-based
cognitive training exercises, and a method known as
transcranial direct current stimulation, in which a weak
electrical current is delivered via electrodes to the front
of the brain.

Previous research has shown that cognitive training can
have lasting beneficial effects. However,  it is less clear
whether and how those effects translate to a person's
functioning in everyday life — something researchers
hope to explore further in the current study.

Researchers also want to find out if electrical stimulation
can amplify the benefits of cognitive training alone.

"We're interested in understanding why some people age
well and some don't, and to help develop ways to intervene
to enhance cognitive function as people age," Alexander
said. "We hope at the end of the study to be able to assess
whether there's a real benefit from combining these
techniques and whether the combination is better than
either one alone."

Researchers will recruit 360 adults between ages 65 and
90 with no significant cognitive impairment or
neurodegenerative disease for the randomized clinical trial,
which will have 120 participants at each site. Over a 12-week
period, some participants will undergo only cognitive
training, some only transcranial direct current stimulation
and some the combination. Another control group will be
tasked with watching and responding to educational videos.

Those receiving both the cognitive training and transcranial
direct current stimulation will be asked to complete a series
of computer-based visual tasks designed to improve various
aspects of their cognitive functioning. As they complete the
tasks, an electrical current will directly stimulate the areas
of the brain believed to be most important in the cognitive
abilities being evaluated.

Researchers will look at whether using transcranial direct
current stimulation to boost the brain's plasticity — or its
ability to change — results in optimal benefit from the
cognitive training.

"We are learning that the brain is not static but rather
dynamic and we can continue to have beneficial changes
in the brain as we age, and the idea is to see if we can
stimulate that," Alexander said. "We think that this
combination of direct current stimulation with cognitive
 training may augment the benefits and enhance the
structural and functional changes that we see in the brain."

All study participants will complete a battery of tests to
assess their memory, language, visual spatial skills,
attention and everyday functioning abilities at the start
of the study, after 12 weeks and at a one-year follow-up
visit. Researchers also will use state-of-the-art
neuroimaging techniques to assess the structure and
function of participants' brain at each of those time points.

"Studying age-related cognitive decline is critical,
especially at a time when people worldwide are living
longer," Alexander said.

From 2025 to 2050, the older population is projected
to almost double to 1.6 billion globally, according to
the U.S. Census Bureau.

"As we age, we often experience changes in aspects
of our memory, our ability to attend to things, and our
ability to problem-solve. These kinds of changes are
common, and they can cause real concern and reduce
our quality of life, interfering with our ability to function
at our best," Alexander said. "So we think it's really
important to be able to understand the mechanisms
underlying these changes and the kinds of things we
can do to enhance cognitive performance as we age,
to prevent decline from occurring."

Alexander's collaborators at the UA are John Allen,
University Distinguished Professor of psychology,
cognitive science and neuroscience and a member of
the BIO5 Institute; Alex Hishaw, assistant professor of
neurology and psychiatry; and Ted Trouard, professor
of biomedical engineering, associate professor of
radiology and member of the BIO5 Institute and the
Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute.