Neurologists Explore New Frontiers of Brain Health

Technology can assist and repair the aging brain but you can’t sit on the couch and do nothing, they told conference attendees.

By Eleanor O'Sullivan

Video games aren’t just for kids anymore.

A video game designed by Adam Gazzaley, a researcher and professor at UCSF, shows promise in helping the elderly regain short term memory and focus.

“It works by challenging and rewarding the brain. When seniors who had dementia played the game, it showed we could improve their short-term memory and attention span outside of the game,’’ Gazzaley said during the “New Frontiers of Brain Health’’ session at the 2022 Century Summit held December 13-14. The summit is a collaboration between the Longevity Project and the Stanford Center on Longevity.

The design of the game, which in 2020 won FDA approval for use in children with ADHD, was improved with better graphics and stories over 15 years for use with varied populations, said Gazzaley; it is played on a hand-held device such as a cellphone.

A holder of medical and doctoral degrees in neuroscience and neurology, Gazzaley also founded Neuroscape, a center for technology creation and scientific research in brain assessment.

“The closed-loop video games (are) integrated with the latest advancements in software (brain computer interfaces, GPU computing, cloud-based analytics) and hardware (virtual/augmented reality, motion capture, mobile physiological recording devices, transcranial electrical brain stimulation). These technologies are then advanced to rigorous research studies that evaluate their impact on multiple aspects of brain function and physiology,’’ according to the product’s website.

Reversing the aging process

Gazzaley was joined on the Century Summit panel by Tony Wyss-Coray a professor of neurology at Stanford University.

Wyss-Coray said his research into the aging brain had been stimulated by an interest in the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.

“I got interested in aging as a result of seeing the cognitive decline that leads to Alzheimer’s disease and looking for ways in how we can increase the quality of life as we age.

“Studies clearly show that we can slow down and even reverse the aging process with multiple interventions, and that will produce a revolution, because of what we are going to have to deal with if we extend life expectancy spans by 10 years.’’

Wyss-Coray said studies that use animals to see what happens to aging metabolic pathways have revealed rich information in the fundamentals of metabolism. Treatments based on this research using animals have shown dramatic effect, he said.

In mice that were treated with blood plasma, aging muscles were regenerated. Wyss-Coray said that this indicates the treatment can rejuvenate the brain at multiple levels.

“Reprogramming of cells could basically erase much of the aging process,’’ Wyss-Coray.

Technology: the good and the bad

If all of this inspires creepy moments from a Philip K. Dick sci fi novel, Gazzaley acknowledged that technology can scare people off.

“We are very quick to either glorify or demonize technology. When technology is considered bad, it’s associated with concerns about privacy and emotional challenges for our children. I get that. It’s all true and all not true.

“We haven’t been very thoughtful about a lot of technology that we created and we’ve underestimated its negative impact. You have to have careful intentions when you start, do the research, so I always can show you that I know when things are going awry. You have to have a system to monitor the system and when it goes wrong, you have to fix it,’’ Gazzaley said.

So, Gazzaley argued, you have to think about the good and the potentially bad of technology when you consider using it to improve cognitive or brain function.

“There’s the invasive, which is implanting electrodes and stimulators and there is amazing work being done on this deep brain stimulation. But my own interests are in the non-invasive. The need now for new, novel approaches is so great. People not suffering true brain disability don’t want neurosurgery.

“But did I say that every grandma should use this (video) game? I never said that!’’  

Wyss-Coray said technology is a tool of humans, rather than the opposite.

“I think science has shown that we can discover and as a society learn how to use (technologies) but it’s a constant struggle for humanity. We have as a society to keep discussing and explaining in lay terms what we are actually doing so everybody can understand what this means, and as society decide what to do with it,’’ Wyss-Coray said.

Harnessing the brain

Gazzaley and Wyss-Coray said they don’t consider longevity a goal unless a longer life span means a healthier life.

“I’ve always focused on quality of life. No one wants to live longer if you don’t have the capacity to engage in the world in a meaningful, well way,” said Gazzaley. “When it comes to the mind, it’s amazing the capacity we have to pay attention, perception, decision, how we feel emotions.”

“In retirement to sit on a couch and do nothing, our brain does not respond well to that kind of activity! My interest is in how we can improve our functions by harnessing our brain to modify itself to every level. It can be repaired. We know that plasticity is the basis for all learning and we thought that that faded with age, but that’s not true. Plasticity is there all the time. How do we target plasticity directly?’’ Gazzaley said.

Careful research and mindful use of technology are ways to accomplish that, he said.
“I hope they find the magic brain cell, but in the meanwhile, the effort is how to stimulate our brain in a powerful way. How can we turn around the distracted mind, how can we leverage the technology that is globally available, to stimulate our brains and keep them healthy?’’

Gazzaley agreed with Wyss-Coray that many tools for keeping healthy are at hand, without scientific intervention: exercise; healthy diet, engagement with the world, and besides playing a video game, activities as old as humanity.

“We’re working on showing that meditation, music, rhythm, as well as physical fitness can benefit seniors,’’ said Gazzaley.

The “New Frontiers of Brain Health” session was moderated by Ximena Araya-Fischel, health editor of Next Avenue. It was held at the Stanford University Center on Longevity.

In a four-decade career in journalism, Eleanor O’Sullivan has reviewed many books on best practices for financial advisors, has written for Financial Advisor and the USA Today network, and was the movie critic for the Asbury Park Press.

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