New research suggests that just 30 minutes of visually guided movements per week can slow and even reverse the progress of dementia. Experts believe the training is particularly useful for early stage dementia as it helps to strengthen neural networks thereby improving cognitive and functional abilities.

In the study, York University investigators developed a game which used rules to make visually guided movements. Participation in the training slowed the progress of dementia and, for some, the training reversed a participant’s cognitive function to healthy status.

Previous approaches have used cognitive training alone or aerobic exercise training alone. The study is the first to investigate the impact of combining both types of approaches on cognitive function in elderly people with various degrees of cognitive defects.

The research appears in the journal Dementia and Geriatric Disorders.

“We found cognitive-motor integration training slows down the progress of dementia, and for those just showing symptoms of dementia, this training can actually revert them back to healthy status, stabilizing them functionally,” said lead researcher Dr. Lauren Sergio.

In the intervention study, a total of 37 elderly people located at senior centers were divided into four groups based on their level of cognition. They completed a 16-week cognitive-motor training program of training sessions playing a videogame that required goal-directed hand movements on a computer tablet for 30 minutes a week.

Before and after the training program, all participants completed a series of tests to establish their level of cognition and visuomotor skills. Sergio’s team performed tests to evaluate cognitive function 14 days prior to and after the intervention period, respectively.

The team observed an overall change in all groups and, specifically, a significant improvement in measures of overall cognition in the sub-average cognition group and the mild-to-moderate cognitive deficits group.

“These results suggest that even in the earliest stages of neurodegeneration, the aging brain has enough neuroplasticity left that if you can train it on this kind of thinking and moving task, it will improve their cognitive skills,” Sergio said.

“The brain still possesses the functional capacities to form sufficient new synaptic connections to induce relevant changes on a systems level.”

Sergio adds the findings suggest that repetitive cognitive-motor integration training may in fact strengthen the involved neural networks and improve cognitive and functional abilities. Researchers believe the frontal lobe is “talking” to the motor control areas, and this is what is paving the way for success.

The study further found that those in the severe cognitive deficits group who did 30 minutes of this eye-hand task did not decline in their cognitive deficits as expected, but instead stayed the same.

“Generally, you expect someone with severe dementia to have their cognitive function decline over five months, but in our study, they all stabilized.”

Sergio said the findings show promise for those who have early-stage dementia because the approach is easy to administer remotely and shows more promise than the basic cognitive training.

Source: York University/EurekAlert