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Memory training and attention deficits: interview with Notre Dame’s Bradley Gibson

Bradley S. Gibson, Ph.D.Pro­fes­sor Bradley Gib­son is an Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Psy­chol­ogy at Uni­ver­sity of Notre Dame, and Direc­tor of the Per­cep­tion and Atten­tion Lab there. He is a cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gist with research inter­ests in per­cep­tion, atten­tion, and visual cog­ni­tion. Gibson’s research has been pub­lished in a vari­ety of jour­nals, includ­ing Jour­nal of Exper­i­men­tal Psy­chol­ogy, Human Per­cep­tion and Per­for­mance, Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, and Per­cep­tion & Psychophysics.

In 2006 he con­ducted the first inde­pen­dent repli­ca­tion study based on the Cogmed Work­ing Mem­ory Train­ing pro­gram we dis­cussed with Dr. Torkel Kling­berg.

A local news­pa­per intro­duced some pre­lim­i­nary results of the study Atten­tion, please: Mem­ory exer­cises reduce symp­toms of ADHD. Some quotes from the articles:

- “The com­puter game has been shown to reduce ADHD symp­toms in chil­dren in exper­i­ments con­ducted in Swe­den, where it was devel­oped, and more recently in a Granger school, where it was tested by psy­chol­o­gists from the Uni­ver­sity of Notre Dame.

- Fif­teen stu­dents at Dis­cov­ery Mid­dle School tried RoboMemo dur­ing a five-week period in Feb­ru­ary and March, said lead researcher Brad Gibson

- As a result of that expe­ri­ence, symp­toms of inat­ten­tion and hyper­ac­tiv­ity were both reduced, accord­ing to reports by teach­ers and par­ents, Gib­son said.

- Other tests found sig­nif­i­cant improve­ment in “work­ing mem­ory”, a short-term mem­ory func­tion that’s con­sid­ered key to focus­ing atten­tion and con­trol­ling impulses.

- RoboMemo’s effec­tive­ness is not as well estab­lished as med­ica­tions, and it’s a lot more work than pop­ping a pill.

- Gib­son said Notre Dame’s study is con­sid­ered pre­lim­i­nary because it involved a small num­ber of stu­dents. Another lim­i­ta­tion is that the study did not have a con­trol group of stu­dents receiv­ing a placebo treatment.

We feel for­tu­nate to inter­view Dr. Gib­son today.

Alvaro Fer­nan­dez (AF): Dr. Gib­son, thanks for being with us. Could you first tell us about your over­all research interests?

Dr. Bradley Gib­son (BG): Thanks for giv­ing me this oppor­tu­nity. My pri­mary research inter­est is Atten­tion and Atten­tional con­trol: how we pri­or­i­tize infor­ma­tion in order to process it with­out being over­whelmed by it. This is an exec­u­tive func­tion that helps each of us man­age the ten­sion between the out­side envi­ron­ment and our self-directed pref­er­ences and goals. This is more com­plex than it sounds. For exam­ple, we must learn how to be focused on one task but be able to pay atten­tion to the over­all pic­ture at the same time-you may be aware of Chandler’s exper­i­ment on in atten­tional blind­ness.

AF: Yes, we posted about that exper­i­ment recently. Let’s not talk too much about it, so read­ers can try it them­selves here if they want. Now, tell us about the Atten­tion Lab, we under­stand it is nicely multi-disciplinary.

BG: It is. We have 5 grad­u­ate stu­dents, and work together with Prof. Dawn Gon­doli, who stud­ies devel­op­ment psy­chol­ogy and socioe­mo­tional devel­op­ment. We want to bridge a num­ber of domains to bet­ter explain the tran­si­tion from child­hood to ado­les­cence. We are inter­ested in how kids develop cog­ni­tive and exec­u­tive func­tions. ADD/ ADHD is an extreme case where the nor­mal devel­op­ment tra­jec­tory does not apply.

AF: Tell us about ADD/ ADHD and devel­op­ment tra­jec­to­ries.

Westerberg H, Hirvikoski T, Forssberg H, Klingberg T. Visuo-spatial working memory span: a sensitive measure of cognitive deficits in children with ADHD. Child Neuropsychol. 2004;10:155-61.BG: There is a very insight­ful study by Wal­ter Mis­chel on pre-schoolers aged 4 and 5. Some of them had a bet­ter abil­ity to con­trol their atten­tion and delay grat­i­fi­ca­tion (mea­sured as the capac­ity not to imme­di­ately eat a marsh­mal­low but to wait for a larger pos­te­rior reward), and those kids were shown, 14 years later, to be hap­pier, have bet­ter over­all school grades, score around 200 points higher in the SAT, and, when tested, dis­play bet­ter exec­u­tive func­tion­ing overall.

The study showed that there are indi­vid­ual dif­fer­ences at very young ages-and the impor­tant impli­ca­tions from this fact. Now, the part that I con­sider more excit­ing is that these dif­fer­ences are not fixed. Train­ing is very impor­tant: atten­tional con­trol is one of the last cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties to develop in nor­mal brain devel­op­ment and, as Prof. Daniel Gopher’s research has shown, can be trained at any age. What we are study­ing is how to help kids that for one rea­son or another start from a bad devel­op­ment tra­jec­tory get into a more pos­i­tive one as quickly as pos­si­ble. This is why we con­tacted Cogmed to con­duct a small repli­ca­tion study of their Work­ing Mem­ory Train­ing pro­gram. We wanted to see if we can enhance, accel­er­ate, the devel­op­ment of work­ing mem­ory and exec­u­tive func­tion­ing.

AF: we could see this as a “snow­ball” effect. If kids are well-equipped to engage in a num­ber of demand­ing activ­i­ties, they will, and will only get bet­ter at them. If they strug­gle with them, they will not par­tic­i­pate, and not “exer­cise” those mus­cles so the gap will only grow. What did the repli­ca­tion study show?

BG: The “snow­ball” metaphor is a good one. The study we con­ducted was a small one and we did not have a con­trol group, so it was not as rig­or­ous as the orig­i­nal research con­ducted by Dr. King­berg and the Karolin­ska Insti­tute. How­ever, the results were very pos­i­tive. Even bet­ter than the orig­i­nal results. We saw that Cogmed work­ing mem­ory train­ing led to cog­ni­tive improvements-increased ver­bal work­ing mem­ory and abstract rea­son­ing (mea­sured by Ravens)- and, more impor­tantly, to the reduc­tion in ADHD symp­toms as mea­sured both by par­ent and teacher rat­ings. The study has been accepted for pre­sen­ta­tion by the Soci­ety for Research in Child Devel­op­ment. I will present the results at their con­fer­ence in Boston in March.

AF: Please send us the paper when ready. Now, work­ing mem­ory is a very impor­tant cog­ni­tive abil­ity for all of us. What other appli­ca­tions can you envi­sion for well-designed and struc­tured work­ing mem­ory programs?

BG: I can eas­ily see the rel­e­vance in 2 fields. One, pro­fes­sional sports. Two, mil­i­tary train­ing. The Army’s Build Bet­ter Sol­dier ini­tia­tive is very inter­ested in devel­op­ing resis­tance and in cog­ni­tive enhance­ments. This would be a nat­ural enhance­ment, free of sec­ondary and unex­pected side-effects of other inter­ven­tions such as drugs and brain implants. We are right now con­duct­ing another study, this one focused on work­ing mem­ory train­ing for healthy col­lege stu­dents, to see if the inter­ven­tion can also be rel­e­vant to non-ADD/ ADHD pop­u­la­tions and could then be of inter­est for the Army.

AF: Pro­fes­sor Gib­son, many thanks for being with us. You are doing a lot of inter­est­ing work, please keep up in the loop.

BG: the plea­sure has been mine. I hope to talk to you soon.

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To learn more about Cogmed Work­ing Mem­ory Train­ing and RoboMemo.

Other inter­views in our Neu­ro­science Inter­view Series:

  • On Work­ing Mem­ory Train­ing and RoboMemo: Inter­view with Dr. Torkel Kling­berg, pro­fes­sor at Karolin­ska Insti­tute, and direc­tor of the Devel­op­men­tal Cog­ni­tive Neu­ro­science Lab, part of the Stock­holm Brain Institute.
  • Cog­ni­tive Train­ing and ADD/ADHD: Inter­view with Prof. David Rabiner, Senior Research Sci­en­tist and the Direc­tor of Psy­chol­ogy and Neu­ro­science Under­grad­u­ate Stud­ies at Duke University.
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