Sunday, October 20, 2013

How to game the ageing process

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By K Ranga Krishnan, 18 October 2013

The scientists slowing the ageing process
PHOTO: The scientists slowing the ageing process
David Sinclair, Professor, who works in Boston and ageing laboratory at Harvard Medical School have been working on synthetic drugs called "Sirtuin activating compounds" (STACs) with the help of his colleagues.

STACs are believed to restore health in humans. The trials in humans are now ongoing.
Posted by Surya Gaire, Jan 31, 2011 at 6:38 PM PST

As we age, our attention slows down, together with our ability to react. This becomes more evident when we reach our late 60s. We forget names of people, especially those we meet only occasionally. We go to a grocery store but can’t remember some of the things we want to buy. More seriously, it affects our drivinglike responding quickly enough in an emergency.

A game called Neuroracer was used to observe how an older driver reacts while using a hand-held controller

in a computer-simulated game. The amount of effort needed was measured by looking at the brain’s electrical activity. Older test participants had to exert more cerebral effort.

We naturally compensate for much of this decline by making suitable adjustments, like making a list before going to a grocery store or by driving a bit slower. Wisdom does compensate for a decline in natural ability to learn.

Can we do something to reduce this slow decline? Many popular books suggest that reading, playing Sudoku or mahjong or solving crossword puzzles help.

mouse study
PHOTO: In a mouse study, the investigators found that reducing the activity of one type of gene increased the average life span of the mice by about 20%; this is comparable to extending the human life span by about 15 years (i.e., from 75 to 90 years). In addition, they found that memory, cognition and some other important traits were better preserved in the mice as they aged, compared to a control group of mice that had normal levels of a protein released by the gene.

Possibility that targeting the gene with drugs that inhibit its activity might one day be at least part of a strategy for prolonging longevity in humans. An immunosuppressant known as rapamycin is currently on the market. It can decrease the activity of the aging gene; however, the researchers caution against taking this or similar drugs at present because they have side-effects. Thus, they should only be taken for currently approved uses.

They note that major obstacles exist in regard to translating the findings to humans.
Posted by Robin Wulffson, M.D., August 30, 2013

A small study in Japan showed significant improvement in elderly folks’ cognitive function after they participated in a daily programme that involved simple arithmetic and language questions. This improvement was sustained for six months afterwards. But many large studies have also shown that such programmes did not improve skills beyond what was targeted.

What about video games and computer programmes? Recently, many brain-training games like Brain Age and Brain Challenge have become popular. It is claimed that playing them for short periods of time can improve a wide variety of functions, such as memory and attention.

Most forms of video game training are designed to improve specific skills — and rarely go beyond those skills.

More than 11,000 people took part in a large study under the BBC’s auspices. One group received training that focused on reasoning, planning and problem-solving; a second group on memory, attention, visual processing and mathematics. A third group served as control subjects.

Those who received training showed improvements in their targeted skills compared to the control subjects, but this did not extend very much to other elements of thinking and function.

Nintendo’s Brain Age helps develop the many skills related to attention, arithmetic, language and processing speed — but interestingly, it also impacts other functions of thinking not specifically targeted. It suggests that when many skills are targeted, maybe the improvement will extend to other functions.

Dr Lee Tih-Shih at Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School and colleagues at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research’s Institute for Infocomm Research have developed a game on a brain-computer interface that involves many components, including location and the recollection of objects and symbols.

Preliminary work has shown promise that it will benefit the elderly. Further studies are in progress.

Then, there is the study just published in the international journal Nature. People aged between 60 and 85 were trained to multitask in a game based on combining driving skills with a hand-held controller along with studying signs on top of the screen.

The difficulty level increased as they got better. They played the game about three hours a week for four weeks. Those taking part in the study improved not only on their game but also in a variety of other skills.

What was striking was that the improvement lasted at least six months.

In both studies, the participants engaged in improving many and not only one skill; in the latter study, they were engaged in multitasking. So maybe, there is hope after all.

Multitasking is a given in everyday life. Maybe more and continued multitasking, as well as learning new material and developing new interests, can not only enhance enjoyment of our later years but also keep our minds healthy. Getting engrossed in an adaptive, multi-dimensional environment could keep cognitive decline at bay.
By K Ranga Krishnan, 18 October 2013
K Ranga Krishnan is Dean of the Duke-NUS Graduate Medical School Singapore. A clinician-scientist and psychiatrist, he chaired the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Duke University Medical Centre from 1998 to 2009.
*This is part of a series on the way we learn. To read the other articles, visit

Appreciation for your body - Ageing is deemed unacceptable.