Showing posts with label improve your cognitive function. Show all posts
Showing posts with label improve your cognitive function. Show all posts

Friday, June 17, 2022

Train Your Working Memory to Improve Cognitive Function

UCI Memory Lab Brain Training Helped Me.
In the summer of 2018, I took a brain class from a local community college, which started me on a journey to protect my cognitive ability, to the extent possible.  I was in my late 60s at the time.  During that class, a guest speaker from the University of California - Irvine MIND Program asked us to sign up for their C2C registry, which stands for "Consent to Contact."  They use this registry to find people who are willing to participate in a variety of studies to help them test different programs which might improve the memory of people as they age. I was excited to join their program!  If you have a research university near you, you might be able to enroll in a similar opportunity.

APT Webstudy

The first program UCI directed me to try has been the APT Webstudy, which is available to anyone, anywhere for free over the internet.  You can try it, too.  Since 2019, I have logged on, as instructed, every three months and used their online program to test myself to see if there has been any changes in my working memory.  Working memory could also be thought of as your very short-term memory, or your ability to keep track of things going on right now.

The program consists of doing a self-report on my memory, and then playing four games on the screen to test myself.  The tests consist of looking at a series of playing cards and trying to remember whether I have seen that card earlier in the test.  

The APT Web Study takes me about 20 minutes every three months, which means the time commitment is minimal. So far, my scores have remained remarkably stable, going up and down by only a small amount over the past three years. That is ideal.  The program describes itself as an Alzheimer's Prevention Trial for people over the age of 50.  I don't know that it will prevent Alzheimer's Disease, but it will provide you important clues to watch and discuss with your doctor if your scores begin to change.  If you want to try it out and track your memory yourself, you can find the free program at:  


I have found it very reassuring to be able to test myself every few months and confirm that my working memory continues to operate normally. However, this test does not seem to do anything to improve my memory, as far as I can tell.  It is possible, however, that it is slightly training my working memory, which is a benefit in itself.

Next I Tried tDCS Brain Stimulation

In May of 2022, I also agreed to participate in a more active type of brain training involving the use of tDCS electrical stimulation on my brain, while I simultaneously completed a series of memory activities under the supervision of researchers. This study took place at the UCI Working Memory and Plasticity Lab under the direction of Dr. Susanne Jaeggi, with the help of a number of research assistants.  According to their brochure, they "have developed an intervention on cognitive training and successful aging.  The aim of the intervention is to optimize opportunities for cognitive health and wellbeing in older adults."  Anything that could help me achieve more successful aging sounds like a good program to me!

Over the past decade the researchers at the UCI Memory lab have "developed computerized interventions to improve learning and memory in diverse populations ... focused on working memory."  

They have used their interventions to train several hundred children, young adults, and older adults (like me!).  They have also found that just a couple of weeks of training improved working memory for at least several months, with the hope that the benefits will last much longer.   According to their research "the more you train, the more you improve."  

What Happened During the tDCS Experiment?

The first session began with a series of sixteen words which I was shown briefly. Then I was asked to recall as many as possible.  Afterwards, I was hooked up to the tDCS device, with two electrodes strapped to my head.  The letters stand for Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation. It is described as "a non-invasive, painless brain stimulation treatment that uses direct electrical currents to stimulate specific parts of the brain. A constant, low intensity current is passed through two electrodes placed over the head which modulate neuronal activity."  It has been used for several years as a treatment for depression and now they are doing research to see if it can also improve working memory.  Early research indicates that it may be effective. The idea of trying it sounded exciting to me, and also a little scary.  

While wearing this equipment, I used an iPad to perform a number of memory tests, which were in addition to the word memory test which I had been given at the start of the session.  The computer tests consisted of being shown an object, animal, plant or number and then recalling whether it was the same as the item I had watched scroll by briefly on the computer screen one back, then two back, and eventually three back.  

In other words, I might be shown a lemon, then an orange, then an apple, then a lemon, then a pear, then an apple, and so on.  When I got to the second lemon, I had seen it before "three back," so I clicked on it.  I had to keep on my toes, because I had also seen the apple three back, and I had to click on it.  I confess that at times I got confused about when I had seen an object before. Was it two back, three back, or four back?  However, I plunged ahead and tried my best.

After the tDCS electrodes were removed about 30 minutes later, I was asked to recall the words that I had been asked to remember at the beginning of the session!

Following the brain activities, I was taken to another building where they performed an MRI to see how my brain looked on the first day of the training program.

That was the end of the first session.

For sessions two through six, which took place the following week, I did all the same things, except I did not repeat the MRI that week.  At the beginning of each session I was shown a group of 16 new words, and asked to repeat them from memory.  Then, I was asked to recall all the words I could from earlier in the week. By Friday, I was being asked to recall as many of the 80 words I had been asked to memorize as possible! 

After the word recall, I spent about an hour each day in the lab with the tDCS electrodes strapped to my head, while performing a variety of memory matching tests, striving to improve how far back I could remember the items each time.

The following week, I attended session seven, which was a repeat of session one, including the MRI.  The researchers plan to compare the two MRIs to see if my brain underwent any physical changes as the result of the training.  

During the second MRI, I was given a device with two buttons on it. I was shown a series of words and asked to punch either the "yes" or "no" button to confirm whether or not the word I was shown briefly on a screen was a word I had been asked to memorize during the preceding week. I did this while the MRI machine was making its loud, metallic sounds.  It was very challenging and I know I made a few mistakes during the session.


The UCI Memory Lab plans to do a follow-up set of memory tests, plus an additional MRI, in three months to see if my memory and my brain have maintained their training. I certainly hope I continue to benefit from this training. I have noticed that it seems slightly easier for me to remember names and events since my seven sessions at the memory lab. Is it real improvement or am I just imagining it?  It is hard to know for sure.

Meanwhile, I may try some memory games to continue exercising my brain, even though I will not have the tDCS machine to use while practicing the memory games.  One highly ranked workbook I found was the "Memory Activity Book:  100+ Brain Exercises to Supercharge Your Memory."  (Ad) It is certainly worth a try while I attempt to retain as much of my enhanced memory as possible.  Anyone could use this book, or a similar one, to train their own memory.  UCI emphasizes that we all must "use it or lose it" when it comes to keeping our brains active.

I was also surprised to learn that it is possible to purchase your own tDCS device and, in fact, you can look here at a: wide variety of tDCS devices in various price ranges (Ad) and see if one of them could help give your own memory a boost.  I do not know if one is any better than the others, so you may want to read the reviews and discuss it with your private physician.  

The tDCS device I used at UCI did not have any negative side effects on me. I did not experience pain or any type of sensation, either during or after the procedure. However, your experience could be different.  They did question me frequently about whether it gave me a headache, made my scalp itch, cause any rashes, and things like that.  My conclusion from their questions is that some people do have negative side effects.

Brain Classes and Personal Behavior 

In addition to the studies mentioned above, I have continued to take brain classes and attend programs held by various researchers from the University of California at Irvine.   Here are the basics of the personal behaviors you can adopt in order to protect your brain health and retain your memory as long as possible:

Cognitive Engagement or challenging yourself mentally is an important key to brain health.  This means learning new skills, reading books, playing a musical instrument and things like that.

Social Engagement or spending quality time with family and friends, including making new friends, is beneficial to cognition.  The best "brain game" you can play is to be deeply engaged in an interesting conversation with other people.

Diet and Nutrition, or specifically adhering to a "heart healthy" diet such as the Mediterranean diet, is linked to overall brain health and longevity.  One of the most highly recommended diets for brain health is called the "Mind Diet" (Ad) and it is worthwhile to pick up a copy of the cookbook so you can follow their diet plan more closely.  

Physical Activity, including any type of exercise, can produce "beneficial changes to brain structure and cognitive function.  This means that physical activity can actually change the structure of your brain, and it can be virtually any activity you enjoy ... walking, swimming, dancing, gardening, etc.

Sleep is crucial for brain health.  In fact, every session I had with the tDCS machine started with questions about how I slept the night before.  

If you want to age well and maintain a strong working memory and your cognitive ability well into your retirement years, you may want to to take brain classes in your area, participate in any brain training they offer, and adopt the personal behaviors recommended above.  These actions could make a huge difference in the quality of your life in the future. 


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Photo credit: UCI Memory Lab and Amazon book cover