Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Icon

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.

Relat­ed arti­cles:

Leave a Reply...

Loading Facebook Comments ...

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,
    Alexan­dra

Leave a Reply

Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Health & Wellness, Technology

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

All Slidedecks & Recordings Available — click image below

Search for anything brain-related in our article archives

About SharpBrains

As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters, and more, SharpBrains is an independent market research firm and think tank tracking health and performance applications of brain science.