Can sustained social interaction, even through a web-based computer interface, prevent or slow cognitive decline in seniors?

That’s the question scientists at OHSU and the University of Michigan will attempt to answer during the next four years in a study that will involve 360 socially isolated adults ages 80 and older in Portland and Detroit. Portland recruitment begins in May through the Meals on Wheels program.

The new research follows a pilot study completed in 2015, which revealed improvement in language-based executive functions among seniors who had face-to-face communications through internet and web cameras compared to a control group that received only weekly telephone interviews.

The new study will expand the timeframe from six weeks to one year and include much more intensive testing that will include magnetic resonance imaging scans for half of the participants, medication tracking and five in-home study visits. Participants assigned to the video chat group will receive a computer and internet service for the duration of the study, which they will use to chat with researchers for 30 minutes a day, four times a week for the first six months and two times a week for the next six months.

Hiroko Dodge, Ph.D., who holds joint appointments in neurology at OHSU and UM, is the study’s principal investigator. She says seniors ages 80 and older are at highest risk of developing dementia cognitive impairment.

“This group is also at high risk of being socially isolated, a risk factor of low physical and emotional health,” she says. “The ultimate goal in this research is to develop sustainable low-cost prevention approaches that can be easily adapted by even socially isolated home-bound seniors.”

The study is funded by the National Institute on Aging of the National Institutes of Health.

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