Can smartphones improve life for those with Alzheimer’s? New study explores

Brain Health

by Baylor Scott & White Health

May 10, 2018

Early detection is critical in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease. That’s why researchers at Baylor Scott & White Research Institute are working on a potentially life-changing screening to identify new genes that could trigger the condition.

Discovering new triggers would no doubt have a profound impact on the future of Alzheimer’s care, but there’s also room for more impact here in the present. To the 5 million people already battling this debilitating disease, the discovery of new therapies to help address memory loss carries just as much potential as that of new trigger genes.

With that in mind, a new study looks at how patients could strengthen what’s commonly referred to as “prospective memory” by using our favorite modern device — the smartphone.

Prospective memory: Remembering to remember

“Think about prospective memory as what prompts you to take a medication at the same time each day, or what reminds you to pick up a gallon of milk the next time you are at the store,” said Jared Benge, PhD, a neuropsychologist at Scott & White Medical Center – Temple. “Even early in the course of the disease, a patient’s ability to ‘remember to remember’ those basic and fundamental tasks diminishes, causing significant disruption to their daily lives.”

Dr. Benge’s research focuses heavily on trying to measure and understand the mechanisms of cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer’s and other conditions wherein the nervous system, which carries messages to and from the brain or spine to other parts of the body, is negatively affected. This background is one of the chief reasons Dr. Benge joined this study led by Michael Scullin, PhD, a cognitive psychologist in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Baylor University.

As an expert in cognitive, or mental, processes, Dr. Scullin has worked for years to understand and develop treatments for lapses in prospective memory. This study builds upon his previous work by studying how smartphones work as memory aides and how the technology of “personal assistant” features could help people remember to perform prospective memory tasks.

“Pagers and other electronic memory aids are known to help prospective memory strength in individuals with cognitive impairment,” Dr. Scullin said. “Smartphone technology has the potential to enhance the benefits of these tools because they can provide reminders, not only at the correct time, but also for the correct contact person and at the correct location.”

Optimizing the “personal assistant” feature

The study will focus on patients with mild cognitive impairment and mild Alzheimer’s disease. Participants will be trained to use a smartphone, specifically a “personal assistant” type feature on the smartphone that helps log and track appointments or reminders. The training will ensure smartphone acceptability, usability and overall user experience are properly measured.

The total participant pool will be divided into two groups to test completion of daily prospective memory tasks over the course of four weeks:

  • Group 1 will be trained to use their smartphone’s personal assistant feature, which reminds participants of their goals, tasks and chores at the appropriate time or location.
  • Group 2 will carry a smartphone, but will be trained to use a memory strategy in which they verbalize reminders to the personal assistant features on their smartphones.

The study aims to measure the effectiveness of using a personal assistant feature on a smartphone in these two different ways — automatic reminders and reminders that must be verbally (manually) scheduled. In doing so, the research team hopes to gain insight into how this technology could best be applied to patients with Alzheimer’s.

One question they hope to answer is whether verbally specifying when and where one intends to complete a goal or action (in other words, verbally specifying a prospective memory task) improves the likelihood of later completing that task.

The research team believes this study could be an important first step in determining the feasibility and potential benefits of using smartphones to reduce memory burden and improve daily, independent functioning for those in early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s is a condition that impacts a person’s daily life bit by bit, slowly taking away pieces of their cognitive functioning. With this and other studies, researchers at Baylor Scott & White Health hope to counter that progressive decline and give patients more time and more memories.

Learn more about ongoing research initiatives at Baylor Scott & White Research Institute.

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