Training the brain is possible because of neuroplasticity. Our daily experiences can trigger neuroplastic changes in the brain, such as the growth of new brain cells (neurons) and new connections (synapses) between neurons. Plasticity is observed at all ages but is at its peak during brain development, as a baby and then a child learns basic knowledge and skills necessary to survive. We should thus expect that the brain of a baby could be easily trained. This is what Wass and his colleagues recently demonstrated in a new study with 11-month-old babies.
With exceptions, the benefit of brain training in adults does not usually extend much beyond the trained tasks. In other word, people often get better in the tasks used during the training but not much in new, unrelated tasks. Is it different for younger, more plastic, brains?
Training Babies’ Brains
42 healthy, 11-month old babies were involved in the two-week study. Half participated in five training sessions of 177 minutes on average. The training involved screen-based tasks. The other half of the babies (the control group) spent the same amount of time watching infant-friendly television clips and still images. All babies’ eye movements were tracked during the sessions.
The training focused on attentional skills. Four tasks were used that all required the babies to use the direction of their gaze to make something happen on the screen. For example, in the butterfly task, as long as the baby fixated the butterfly it kept “flying” from one side of the screen to the other, while distractor images (of a cloud, a house, etc.) move in the opposite direction. As soon as the baby stopped looking at the butterfly, all the other images disappeared and the butterfly remained static on the screen. Such a task targeted selective or focused attention and the ability to resist interference (inhibition). The other tasks were designed to train other aspects of attention such as visual search, switching between tasks, keeping information in visuospatial working memory and using it. In all tasks, the level of difficulty changed adaptively in response to babies’ performance.
All babies were assessed before the training and at the end of the two-week study. The assessment focused on task-switching ability (a sign of cognitive control), sustained attention, eye movement reaction times, and working memory. To evaluate how much the benefits from the training would transfer to an untrained task the spontaneous viewing behavior of the babies was monitored while they sat in front of a puppet theater (structured free play).
After two weeks, only trained babies showed improvement in sustained attention and cognitive control as well as faster eye movement reaction times and quicker attention disengagement. The absence of training effect on working memory was surprising given the strong link between attention and working memory but the authors suggest that this may be explained by the fact that working memory is not very developed at this early age.
Did the effects of training transfer to the babies’ attentional behavior during free play? Somewhat. A trend (that is, some effect but not strong enough to be statistically significant) showed that trained babies shifted they attention from objects to objects more than untrained babies and also looked more often but using shorter glances at objects. What is this good? Because such a gaze pattern (more frequent and shorter gazes) has previously been linked at 9 months with superior language development later on at 31 months.
The question of transfer of benefits to untrained tasks is crucial in the brain training area. Indeed, what would be the point of training your brain at some computerized tasks to only perform better at these tasks but see no improvement in your daily life?
To this date, a few studies with adults report transfer of benefit to memory tasks very similar to the ones trained. A few more studies with children over 4 have shown transfer of benefit from working memory training to untrained memory and attentional tasks. The evidence from the new study reported here is another piece of data, showing that transfer is possible, though not in a striking way (remember that it was only a trend). This points to the fact that brain training may need to be specific to be effective.
The most surprising results of this new study is that training effect were observed a) in young babies and b) after only 2 weeks. Since attentional control is impaired in conditions such as autism or ADHD, it is promising to see that potential interventions could have some effects very early on in the development. The question though is how long do these training effect last?
Wass et al., (in press). Training Attentional Control in Infancy, Current Biology.
— This article was written by Pascale Michelon, Ph. D.. Dr. Michelon has a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology and has worked as a Research Scientist at Washington University in Saint Louis, in the Psychology Department. She is now an Adjunct Faculty at Washington University, and facilitates Memory Workshops in numerous retirement communities in the St Louis area.