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Brain Activity Can Predict If People Will Benefit From Cognitive Training

Cog­ni­tive per­for­mance can be improved but peo­ple vary in their abil­i­ty to do so. It is not clear yet how to assess who will ben­e­fit the most from train­ing and the cog­ni­tive tests used in the past were not very good at pre­dict­ing this.

Dr. Kramer and his col­leagues recent­ly showed that the brain activ­i­ty in a spe­cif­ic part of the brain (the dor­sal stria­tum) at the start of train­ing in a com­plex video-game could accu­rate­ly pre­dict how well peo­ple will ben­e­fit from the train­ing. Thir­ty-four young adults with lit­tle expe­ri­ence in play­ing video games were trained to play a com­plex video game called Space Fortress. After ini­tial instruc­tion, they played the game while their brains were being scanned using fMRI. For the next three to eight weeks (38 days on aver­age) they com­plet­ed ten two-hour train­ing ses­sions play­ing the game out­side the scan­ner. Final­ly they under­went a sec­ond fMRI scan sim­i­lar to the first one. The results showed that the pat­terns of activ­i­ty in the dor­sal stria­tum record­ed before the start of train­ing were high­ly pre­dic­tive of the suc­cess at learn­ing how to play the video game.

Par­tic­i­pants were divid­ed into groups of 2 group: good and poor learn­ers based how much their score improved from the begin­ning to the end of the train­ing. It was found that the activ­i­ty in the dor­sal stria­tum was high­er for good than for poor learn­ers. The cor­re­la­tion between improve­ment in score and activ­i­ty in this brain region was sig­nif­i­cant.

Good and poor learn­ers not only dif­fer in their lev­el of activ­i­ty in the dor­sal stria­tum, but also in the activ­i­ty pat­terns with­in this region. This com­bi­na­tion of dif­fer­ences allowed the researchers to pre­dict which sub­jects will be good learn­ers just by look­ing at their brain activ­i­ty before the train­ing began. The dor­sal stria­tum is involved in learn­ing and exe­cu­tion of com­plex respons­es: It plays a role in habit learn­ing and in car­ry­ing out or ini­ti­at­ing com­plex goal-direct­ed tasks such as task switch­ing.

Why should we care about these results?

Train­ing with the same video game (Space Fortress)  has been shown to improve flight con­trol pro­fi­cien­cy in novice pilots. Since train­ing can be cost­ly both in terms of mon­ey and time, being able to deter­mine before train­ing who would ben­e­fit the most from it could low­er such costs.

The results mat­ter also for indi­vid­u­als try­ing to boost spe­cif­ic per­for­mance (mem­o­ry, atten­tion, etc.). Indeed, ide­al brain train­ing should be spe­cif­ic to the indi­vid­ual and his or her goals. Hav­ing a way to deter­mine if a type of train­ing will ben­e­fit the indi­vid­ual would be a great help in decid­ing which train­ing pro­gram to use.

Why would fMRI be more pre­dic­tive than cog­ni­tive per­for­mance?

Dr. Kramer spec­u­lates that it might be that the structure/function of the brain is clos­er to the source (and hence pos­si­bly mea­sured with less error) of the tis­sue and process­es respon­si­ble for learn­ing – than mea­sures of dif­fer­ent (rel­a­tive­ly iso­lat­ed) cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties.

Do you find this fas­ci­nat­ing?

Dr. Kramer’s lab has a post-doc­tor­al fel­low­ship you may be inter­est­ed in: POSTDOCTORAL FELLOWSHIP IN HUMAN BRAIN PLASTICITY, BECKMAN INSTITUTE, UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS

Appli­ca­tions are invit­ed for a mul­ti-year fel­low­ship posi­tion in human brain plas­tic­i­ty at the Beck­man Insti­tute, Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois.  The suc­cess­ful appli­cant will have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to play an impor­tant role in the inter­dis­ci­pli­nary study of  human brain and cog­ni­tive plas­tic­i­ty in sev­er­al fund­ed research projects includ­ing cog­ni­tive train­ing in a com­plex video-game like envi­ron­ments and fit­ness train­ing with chil­dren and adults.

Essen­tial skills include a thor­ough knowl­edge of  func­tion­al MRI and struc­tur­al MRI tech­niques, good orga­ni­za­tion­al abil­i­ties, as well as the abil­i­ty to work well in research teams. While this posi­tion requires tech­ni­cal sophis­ti­ca­tion it is more suit­ed for some­one who is sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly inter­est­ed in neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty and its rela­tion to cog­ni­tion, than some­one with a strict meth­ods ori­en­ta­tion. The suc­cess­ful appli­cant will hold a PhD; how­ev­er appli­ca­tions are also wel­comed from cur­rent PhD stu­dents who will have sub­mit­ted their dis­ser­ta­tions by June 1, 2011.Salary will be in the range $44,000 to $50,000, depend­ing on knowl­edge and expe­ri­ence, and will come with health and oth­er ben­e­fits at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois.

Please send appli­ca­tions (via e-mail) includ­ing cov­er let­ter, CV, the names and address­es of three ref­er­ees, in one pdf file, to the Prin­ci­pal Inves­ti­ga­tor, Dr Art Kramer (a-kramer at, Direc­tor of the Beck­man Insti­tute.   You are also wel­come to check out this for more infor­ma­tion on the Beck­man Insti­tute and the lab.

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Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness

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

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