In a packed Lady Mitchell Hall, Darwin alumna Professor Barbara Sahakian gave the most recent Darwin College Lecture (19 February). This well-regarded lecture series has been organised annually since 1986 and each lecture attracts an audience of around 600 individuals. This year, the series is themed ‘Games’ and Professor Sahakian’s lecture was titled ‘Games for the Brain’.
Professor Sahakian started off by emphasising importance of a healthy brain and how unequally we treat physical and mental health. She pointed out that mental health is the single largest cause of disability in the UK. Nonetheless, we are becoming very accustomed to using innovative technology to monitor our physical health, but were not using this for improving our cognition and mental health.
She argued that a more preventative approach to mental health was needed in order to improve outcomes and the well-being of those affected. She urged the young scientists in the audience to take up a career in mental health research, and to look at how this research can be translated into effective policy. She highlighted the example of her involvement with the government’s Foresight project on Mental Capital and Wellbeing, which was one of the first to took a so-called lifecourse approach: looking at risk factors and protective factors across an individual’s whole lifespan.
The lecture also elaborately looked at early detection of Alzheimer’s disease. Currently, this dementia is usually diagnosed when the patient already shows problems functioning at work or at home. However, our understanding of the neuropathological basis of Alzheimer’s is continuously improving. An early intervention before the patient’s quality of life is declining would be important. Professor Sahakian explained how automated tests on touch-screen devices can be used to detect cognitive problems and enable physicians to diagnose and treat certain types of dementia early on.
One of the main problems in Alzheimer’s is the retrieval of episodic memory (where did I park my bike at the station?), which is not very responsive to medication. An innovative example of halting memory problems is the use of games. A Cambridge team surrounding Professor Sahakian has developed brain training games. Cognitive training is known to be effective to improve memory, but it’s often perceived as a chore. The game was therefore designed to be fun, motivating, and attention grabbing.
A differently themed version of this same game is also used in schizophrenia patients. One of the most devastating effects in terms of quality of life and social recovery are not psychotic symptoms, such as hallucinations and delusions, but the impairment in cognitive functions. These were targeted by the game: while patients’ memory improved with training, they also show better functioning at daily activities.
Professor Sahakian also briefly discussed the potential of the drug modafinil to boost cognition, and ended the lecture with a few tips on how we could all keep our brains healthy. She argued we had to ‘use it or lose it’, which could be done by education (life-long learning) and cognitive training. She also highlighted the importance of physical exercise for not only extending your lifespan, but also keeping your brain healthier.
The lecture has been recorded on camera, and can be watched later via the Series website. There are two remaining Darwin Lectures: 26 February Professor Nick Davies will lecture on Games Animals Play, and on 4 March Dr Thomas C Schelling will give a lecture on the Game Theory of Conflict.
Written by Hannah Jongsma
Cover image: By User:Rhux – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30832494 (resized, cropped to fit)