News

Ryuta Kawashima: The devil who cracked the dementia code

Ryuta Kawashima believes his brain-training techniques could help improve the lives of dementia sufferers
Ryuta Kawashima believes his brain-training techniques could help improve the lives of dementia sufferers The Independent

RYUTA Kawashima is used to children pointing at him on the street. They often shout "Kawashima Devil!"  It's the price the neuroscientist pays for being the famous face of a lucrative series of brain puzzles that he developed for Nintendo.

Kawashima appears in the videos as a disembodied, floating head with horns and a bright red face, asking "devilishly" hard maths and memory questions.

Millions of games have been sold, earning him royalties of over $30m. But, he says, his games are more than just a fun way to learn: they could, in fact, provide a revolutionary new way to treat dementia.

The 54-year-old refused to keep the money he made from the brain puzzle series, ploughing much of it into a research centre in Japan's Tohoku University, attached to the Institute of Development, Aging and Cancer.

Kawashima's 40-strong team of young scientists spends their days working on ways to train our working memory and stimulate the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that deals with problem-solving and personality.

Brain exercises have been shown to expand the cortex of healthy young people, he says, "So why not the old?"

That question animates a remarkable new documentary on Kawashima's work. In Do You Know What My Name Is? pensioners with severe dementia at a care home in the US state of Cleveland, Ohio, are seen recovering the use of their memories after using a six-month programme of learning therapy he designed.

Some are almost literally brought back to life, transformed from depressed, hollow shells slipping inexorably toward death back into sociable, happy people.

"We neuroscientists knew that brain plasticity exists in young subjects. The new point is that we now know it exists even in the brains of dementia sufferers," Kawashima explains.

He says stimulating the frontal cortex clearly improves memory and brainpower: "We found that the best candidate for training working memory in people with dementia is reading aloud and performing simple arithmetic."

Kawashima claims his own tests show an improvement in up to six out of 10 dementia sufferers, and he thinks that this can be bettered.

Dementia, a catch-all term for symptoms that include loss of memory and cognitive function, afflicts about 800,0000 people in the UK, according to the Alzheimer's Society.

The symptoms are progressive, robbing victims of memory, confidence, personality and, eventually, life as they slowly fade away.

The condition costs the UK economy an estimated £23bn a year, says the Society, and there is no known cure or preventative - only the use of expensive drugs to delay the onset.

With the number of sufferers expected to treble worldwide from 36 million to 115 million by 2050, according to the World Health Organisation, scientists are increasingly turning to non-drug treatment.

A paper this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says a simple, cheap prescription of vitamins B6 and B12, and folic acid can slow the decline of grey matter. Nurses at care homes around the world use approaches such as music, art therapy and card games in an attempt to keep older brains stimulated and alive.

Japan is a test case for dementia because it is the world's fastest-ageing society, with nearly a quarter of the population aged 65 or older.

For about a decade, thousands of private nursing homes across the country have been using Kawashima's learning therapy, essentially a series of 30-minute brain exercises done every day, five days a week.

The method has spread through word of mouth, after nurses and strapped local governments almost universally reported a slowing or even reversal of cognitive decline in subjects.

So far, however, Japan's powerful Ministry of Health has so far refused to fund large-scale clinical trials, Kawashima laments.

He believes he knows why: "Many doctors are not happy with our results because if they use our method they can't sell drugs. This is a very big market in Japan and they're losing a lot of money."

Because his approach is marketed via a private company called Kumon Institute of Education, he insists he doesn't, in any case, need government help. The Ministry of Health declined to comment on his method.

As Kawashima's fame has grown, so has interest in his work - along with criticism. Some scientists have branded him a charlatan who has made a lot of money selling crank theories.  Others say the jury is still out.

"I think he is a compelling character, and has some excellent ideas," says Professor Clive Ballard, a researcher on dementia with University College London. "They aren't yet well supported though by research evidence," he adds.

The problem, Kawashima admits, is the dearth of large-scale clinical trials on his work. However, that may be changing soon.

The Cleveland experiment is expected to spread elsewhere in the US and further afield too: Finland's government is launching a bid to translate his learning therapy into the local language and culture.

"His work has a promise big enough to invest in a really big trial," says Dr Juha Teperi, who is organising what he says will be a randomized sample of between 200 and 300 people. If Kawashima's findings are repeated, "it would be a really big breakthrough," Teperi believes.

The father of four boys, Kawashima is critical of modern lifestyles which, he says, may worsen dementia in years to come. Ironically, he is highly critical video games. Playing for too long can inhibit the prefrontal cortex, he explains, because it is a passive activity, like watching TV.

"I only allowed my sons to play video games on Saturday and Sunday, for one hour each," he says.

Do You Know What My Name Is? recently won the Audience Favourite award at the 2013 American Documentary Film Festival. The movie uses photos and family testimony to show the mental decline of accomplished, vibrant people until they eventually forget even the names of their heartbroken children.

A care worker repeatedly introduces himself to his elderly charges with the documentary's eponymous question. By the end of the film, remarkably, some patients can recall this information.

"It's an example of how we can make the lives of older people liveable again," says Kawashima.

Topics:  dementia mental health



Your newspaper just took out three global gongs!

News Corp's Hey Mumma named best in the world!

How much are we losing on the pokies?

New data purchased by NSW Greens shows how much communities have lost to pokies in the last quarter of 2016.

NEW data shows how much poker machines are taking from communities.

Siege inquest: Police took too long to act after shooting

DAY THAT SHOCKED THE NATION: A panicked hostage runs to tactical response officers after escaping from the Lindt Cafe in Martin Place, Sydney.

The coroner is handing down his findings into the Lindt Cafe siege.

Local Partners

Vegie donations leave no child behind

On Thursday, May 25 at 10am sharp, hundreds of students across the Mid North Coast will 'crunch' vegies.


What to expect at Birds of Tokyo's Ipswich gig

The band will perform at the Racehorse Hotel on Friday.

BAND member Glen Sarangapany talks music, pub grub and doing shoeys

Petula Clark delighted to sing live for Australian fans

STILL TOURING: English singer Petula Clark is coming to Queensland.

English star Petula Clark still puts on a great show, even at 84.

Do you really know your road rules?

Cars travel around the roundabout at Villiers and Fitzroy Street. Photo Adam Hourigan / The Daily Examiner

List of the top 10 most misunderstood road rules in NSW.

Rebel Wilson says she didn’t have to lie to make it

I’M not glamorous, but that doesn’t make me a liar: that’s the message from Rebel Wilson on her second day in the witness box.

All bets on Judah to win battle to become the Voice

Judah Kelly from The Voice.

Judah Kelly is the clear favourite to win the competition.

Kim Kardashian slammed over Manchester tribute

Kim Kardashian's tribute to Manchester didn't go down well

Top Gun 2 movie is happening, Tom Cruise confirms

Tom Cruise in a scene from the movie Top Gun.

TOM Cruise delights fans with announcement on Sunrise.

The first Baywatch movie reviews are in

From left, Jon Bass, Alex Daddario, Zac Efron, Dwayne Johnson, Kelly Rohrbach, and Ilfenesh Hadera in a scene from the movie Baywatch.

Critics were less than impressed.

Boyfriend loses it over sex lie

Stacey Louise’s sex lie destroys her relationship.

SEVEN Year Switch’s Stacey told a fib about her sex life.

Why Crowe’s thankful for those ‘bulls**t’ rumours

Russell Crowe and Terri Irwin in 2007.

Crowe and Terri Irwin have been dodging dating rumours for years now

How Toowoomba house prices compare in Australia

For sale sign in front of home.

Here's what $700,000 will buy you in Toowoomba, Brisbane and Sydney

UPDATE: Details revealed on rural land rezoning

REZONING: Large areas of Bonville have been rezoned for residential

Land rezoning will turn farmland into residential living

Bonville to become new housing hub

REZONING: Large areas of Bonville have been rezoned for residential

Land rezoning will turn farmland into housing

One of Maryborough's most historic homes is still for sale

FULL OF HISTORY: Trisha Moulds is owner of the historic Tinana state known as Rosehill. The beautiful home is currently for sale.

It has been the scene of both joy and tragedies over the years.

The face of the Sunshine Coast's overpriced rental crisis

Alyx Wilson had to rent a $385 unit in Currimundi because the market was too competitive for cheaper rental housing. She is now renting a room from friends who own a house in Currimundi, and says its much more affordable.

Young people feel the strain in competitive, expensive rental market

Ready to SELL your property?

Post Your Ad Here!