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Needed: funding for innovative research on slowing cognitive decline via cognitive training

I was really inter­ested in the recent cri­tique of the BBC brain train­ing exper­i­ment by Dr. Eliz­a­beth Zelin­ski. I think Owens et al (2010) was a crit­i­cal piece of research which was not con­ducted in the right way and was focus­ing on the wrong sam­ple pop­u­la­tion.  I totally agree with the com­ments by Dr. Zelin­ski regard­ing the poten­tial for sam­ple bias and the use of some ques­tion­able cog­ni­tive mea­sures. How­ever, I would like to take this cri­tique fur­ther and ques­tion whether the study was value for money when there are other stud­ies which can­not achieve fund­ing but would, in my opin­ion, show the criticism/scepticism of the use-it-or-lose-it theory.

I think there is not enough crit­i­cism about the age of the sam­ple pop­u­la­tion used in Owens et al. (2010). We have con­clu­sive cog­ni­tive and neu­ro­log­i­cal evi­dence that cognitive/neurological plas­tic­ity exists in young adults. There is also ade­quate evi­dence that neu­ro­plas­tic­ity is evi­dent in older adults. The crit­i­cal point which I want to make about the sam­ple pop­u­la­tion in Owens et al. study is that it did not tar­get the cor­rect sam­ple pop­u­la­tion, that is, older adults who are at risk of cognitive/neuronal atro­phy. It does not mat­ter if younger adults improve on brain train­ing tasks, or if skills picked up by younger adults from brain train­ing are not trans­ferred to other cog­ni­tive domains, sim­ply because younger adults are good at these skills/cognitive func­tions. There­fore there is a pos­si­bil­ity that ceil­ing or scal­ing effects mask the true find­ings in Owens et al. (2010), as indi­cated by Zelinski.

The recruit­ment of the sam­ple pop­u­la­tion is also very con­cern­ing and I do not feel that their con­trol group was appro­pri­ate. I fully agree with Zelin­ski in that the major­ity of par­tic­i­pants were scep­tics and there was no mon­i­tor­ing of test­ing due to the use of using the inter­net for test­ing. How­ever I also feel that the con­trol group had an activ­ity which was inap­pro­pri­ate. Salt­house (2006) has illus­trated how using the computer/internet has been rated as very cog­ni­tively demand­ing. There­fore I would argue that any inves­ti­ga­tions into brain train­ing, par­tic­u­larly with older adults, should use the pen and paper method of test­ing (accepted that Owens et al. did not test older adults).

In line with Zelin­ski I do not believe that the mea­sures of cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing were appro­pri­ate. The rea­son for this is that in healthy aging the func­tions which decline are episodic mem­ory (e.g. Dun­losky & Salt­house, 1996), metacog­ni­tion (e.g. Souchay & Isin­grini, 2004) and exec­u­tive func­tion (e.g. Per­fect, 1997). If we wish to inves­ti­gate whether brain train­ing can atten­u­ate cog­ni­tive decline in healthy aging we need to mea­sure these cog­ni­tive func­tions using tech­niques which are objec­tive and empir­i­cally sup­ported. I do not believe that the tests used in Owen et al. (2010) did this. Fur­ther­more, in line with Salt­house (2006) we need to show a sig­nif­i­cant age X activ­ity inter­ac­tion for these cog­ni­tive functions.

I have other reser­va­tions about the research, but my final point is with regards to the between-subjects design. With my col­leagues (Chris Moulin & Catri­ona Mor­ri­son) we have shown that it is pos­si­ble to use a within-subjects design to inves­ti­gate the use-it-or-lose-it the­ory. Demo­graphic fac­tors can then be con­trolled for and incor­po­rated into the analy­sis on the sec­ond stage of analy­sis. My argu­ment is that pre­vi­ous research (e.g. Kar­bach & Kray, 2009; Glisky & Glisky, 1999) have demon­strated that cog­ni­tive inter­ven­tions only work for only cer­tain indi­vid­u­als who can be regarded as at risk. There­fore, there is a need to com­pare a between-subjects and within-subjects design for older adults, tak­ing into account cog­ni­tive func­tions which decline with age and unfor­tu­nately this is not what Owens et al. (2010) did.

Ques­tion: At the moment a cou­ple of col­leagues at Leeds Uni­ver­sity and myself are try­ing to get fund­ing to con­duct inde­pen­dent tri­als on Nin­tendo Brain Train­ing vs cog­ni­tive train­ing approaches, but it’s prov­ing really dif­fi­cult to get any spon­sor­ship. May any Sharp­Brains reader got any ideas as to who might be interested?

Nick Almond is a Research Stu­dent at Uni­ver­sity of Leeds Insti­tute of Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ences. Fol­low­ing com­ple­tion of a BSc (Hons) degree at the Insti­tute, Nick started a PhD to inves­ti­gate cog­ni­tive decline in healthy age­ing using a com­bi­na­tion of approaches includ­ing self-report, lon­gi­tu­di­nal and empir­i­cal neu­ropsy­cho­log­i­cal mea­sure­ments. Nick is a mem­ber of the Leeds Mem­ory group and his super­vi­sors are Dr Chris Moulin and Dr Catri­ona Mor­ri­son. Recently he co-organised the PSYPAG Human Neu­ro­science and Neu­ropsy­chol­ogy Conference.

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2 Responses

  1. Hello Nick, I don´t know the UK fund­ing envi­ron­ment that well, but we do see excel­lent research being done there on com­put­er­ized work­ing mem­ory train­ing and cog­ni­tive behav­ioral ther­apy, so I´d sug­gest your group part­ner with some other lab to con­duct some com­par­a­tive effec­tive­ness study, more focused on “seri­ous” appli­ca­tions than on “brain games”. Based on the Fore­sight study on men­tal cap­i­tal and well­ness, I´d be sur­prised if the NHS and its NICE group wasn´t actively look­ing into this area in more solid ways than the BBC did. We can chat offline.

  2. Alexandra Dunnison says:

    Do you have, or do you know of, the best cog­ni­tive train­ing exer­cises for work­ing mem­ory that can be done as a com­puter activ­ity? This is for a 19 year old.
    Thank you,

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