Rohma Cummins and Barrie Jones try a program which helps the memory at the Brain and Mind Centre at Chippendale. Photo: Photo: Steven Siewert
Rohma Cummins, 83, sounds like a person with her marbles intact, but sometimes she forgets an appointment or a name that she once knew well, and it makes her unhappy.
“One was the federal minister for health in the 1980s – it took me about a week to remember,” Ms Cummins said.
“It took me two days to remember the name of a writer and in the end I had to ring a friend and ask, and that’s a bit sad.
Barrie Jones uses a program that helps his memory at the Brain and Mind Centre at Chippendale. Photo: Photo: Steven Siewert
“It’s everybody’s concern that they’re losing it.”
But there may yet be a way to prevent or delay the advancement of dementia.
Researchers have pinpointed for the first time how physical exercise and cognitive training can thicken parts of the brain to prevent it from developing degenerative diseases such as dementia.
Neuroscientists have known that certain exercises delay or prevent the development of dementia, but until this point nobody knew why this was the case.
But a study published on Wednesday in Molecular Psychiatry used magnetic resonance imaging to demonstrate that physical resistance exercises resulted in a thickening of grey matter in the posterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain that acts as a central hub and integrates input from other areas.
Cognitive brain training, meanwhile, strengthened the connectivity between the hippocampus – the brain’s memory centre – and the frontal lobe, which is involved in problem solving.
These are precisely the areas that are affected by early Alzheimer’s disease.
University of Sydney lead researcher Michael Valenzuela said the results showed real potential for certain exercises to slow or prevent the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
“The changes that we saw were in the opposite direction of Alzheimer’s, so that’s really why we got so excited by the study, because it seems that these different interventions can separately lead to the effects that antagonise Alzheimer’s disease,” Associate Professor Valenzuela said.
“It’s going to really energise the prevention area.”
Researchers in the double-blind placebo controlled study split a group of 100 people who were at risk of developing dementia into four groups that did twice weekly exercises for six months.
One group did computer-based exercises that tested their memory and problem-solving abilities, and a placebo exercise. Another did resistance exercises with weights and gym equipment that tested their muscle groups, and a placebo brain exercise. A third group did both exercises and a fourth formed the control.
Surprisingly, there was no therapeutic benefit for the people who did both the physical and the cognitive exercises, which the researchers believe may have been due to “overload”.
But those who did the cognitive brain training underwent changes to their hippocampus, while those who did the physical resistance exercises demonstrated changes to their posterior cingulate cortex.
Ms Cummins, who participated in the trial and did the cognitive exercises, said it was hard to tell whether her brain function had improved, although she did think some things were returning to her more quickly.
“Apart from your body falling to bits, the most important thing is your brain,” she said.