THE BLOG
06/04/2013 01:34 pm ET | Updated Aug 04, 2013

Memory Problems After Cancer? Computer Games May Help

If you've been through cancer treatment and you are struggling with memory, concentration, multitasking and/or word retrieval issues, you may be hoping for that golden portal, that doorway back to your pre-cancer self.

If only, if only...

One area researchers are investigating to whisk you there is cognitive (re)training with specially-designed software. How great would it be if rehabilitation were just a handful of hours and some computer mouse clicks away? Could it possibly be so easy as playing timed word games, puzzles, and a variation on Whac-A-Mole?

That's the hope. In recent years a few studies have looked into it. Two, using software developed by Posit Science and Lumos Labs (Lumosity), have focused on "chemo brain" in people who have had breast cancer. Other studies have looked at cognitive issues more broadly. Software by Cogmed has has been used to study brain injuries, memory issues in children with cancer, concentration issues related to ADHD, and more. Programs by Dakim have centered on age-related memory decline. Cognifit software has supported memory research in students with dyslexia and in patients with multiple sclerosis, and in age-related decline.

There may be more science-based programs out there. Let me know if I've missed any.

In the meantime, here's a summary of the Posit Science and Lumos Labs studies.

The Posit Science Study

Between 2009 and 2011, 82 women participated in a study that compared results of classroom memory exercises with computer software exercises. The results were published last October in the journal Breast Cancer Research and Treatment (lead author: Diane Von Ah, Ph.D., RN of Indiana University). Researchers randomly assigned the women to one of three groups: 1) classroom-type instruction on how to remember lists of words, sequences and text; or 2) speed of information processing training (how quickly you think things through) with Posit Science software (InSight program); or 3) a wait-list control group. All the women had gone through surgery and chemotherapy and on average had completed treatment 5.5 years earlier.

Those in the training groups participated in 10 one-hour training sessions over a period of six to eight weeks.

Both training groups improved in processing speed and verbal memory based on neuropsychological assessments and patient questionnaires but according to Dr. Von Ah as quoted in Medscape, the software group outcome "may have 'broader' benefits."

The Lumos Labs (Lumosity) Study

Forty-one women (21 active and 20 wait-listed as the control group) participated. Each had undergone surgery and chemotherapy (may also have had radiation and/or hormonal therapies) to treat breast cancer. On average, they completed treatment six years prior. Results appeared just last month in the journal Clinical Breast Cancer (lead author: Shelli Kesler, Ph.D., director of the Neuropsychology and Neuroimaging Lab, Stanford University).

The researchers designed this particular program to test for improvement in executive functioning, a term referring to working memory, decision-making, multitasking, planning and attention. The women trained using the software on their home computers over the course of 12 weeks. Exercises included navigating through a rotating maze, recalling the location of coins and other memory/puzzle games.

At the end of that time (researchers administered standardized cognitive tests prior to beginning the program and then again after completing it), the women who played the computer games showed significant improvements compared to the control group in processing speed, word finding, and verbal memory.

Both studies though lacked long-term follow up, so we don't know if the benefits held over time. Also, it's not clear whether the most important question of all has been answered: Can successful cognitive training transfer to real-world responsibilities, or do you just get better at the games themselves? At least in the Kesler study, the participants reported they could function better in how they planned and accomplished goals and kept track of tasks.

Drs. Kesler and Von Ah say that more research is needed but it does appear from other studies that computer-based cognitive training can slow deterioration in cases of Alzheimer's disease and mild cognitive impairment.

Have you used any of these programs? If so, which ones? Did they help? I'd really like to know. I'll bet others would too.

Idelle Davidson is the co-author (with Dr. Dan Silverman at UCLA) of Your Brain After Chemo: A Practical Guide to Lifting the Fog and Getting Back Your Focus.

For more by Idelle Davidson, click here.

For more on the mind, click here.