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Brain Training for Babies: Hope, Hype, Both?

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).

The Results

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?

Ref­er­ences

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.

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