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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 illinois.edu), 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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