Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


Study: For cognitive training to work, it must induce neuroplasticity in brain regions that matter

connectomeOver the last sev­er­al years, cog­ni­tive train­ing has received large amounts of pub­lic inter­est and sup­port because reli­ably improv­ing cog­ni­tive per­for­mance would have wide reach­ing appli­ca­tions in clin­i­cal pop­u­la­tions, old­er adults, and the pub­lic at large. For exam­ple, cog­ni­tive train­ing could play an impor­tant role in healthy aging by delay­ing the onset of age relat­ed cog­ni­tive decline, or by blunt­ing the sever­i­ty of decline.  It could also help schiz­o­phrenic patients alle­vi­ate some of the severe­ly debil­i­tat­ing cog­ni­tive symp­toms of the dis­ease, such as deficits in the exec­u­tive func­tion­ing and work­ing mem­o­ry.

As a result of this enthu­si­asm, both among the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty and the pub­lic, many labs across the globe have sought to demon­strate how var­i­ous cog­ni­tive train­ing par­a­digms might improve per­for­mance on untrained tasks and abil­i­ties, a phe­nom­e­non known as trans­fer. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, many cog­ni­tive train­ing stud­ies have found mixed results, with lim­it­ed or unre­li­able improve­ments over­all to untrained tasks and abil­i­ties. One impor­tant rea­son for the lack of repli­ca­tion and suc­cess in the field is an under­de­vel­oped under­stand­ing of the basic neu­ro­science of train­ing and trans­fer. The pre­dom­i­nant hypoth­e­sis of how trans­fer occurs sug­gests that train­ing will trans­fer to anoth­er task if the train­ing induces some form of plas­tic­i­ty or change in brain regions or net­works impor­tant for the untrained task. This is known as the neur­al over­lap of train­ing hypoth­e­sis (Jonides 2004; Nature Neu­ro­science; Dahlin et al. 2008; Sci­ence), and its psy­cho­log­i­cal pre­cur­sor has been around since Thorndike & Wood­worth’s sem­i­nal papers in the ear­ly 1900s. While this hypo­thet­i­cal frame­work agrees with much the lit­er­a­ture in cog­ni­tive neu­ro­science, it has not received much empir­i­cal sup­port.

In our lat­est study, we attempt­ed to test this hypoth­e­sis by exam­in­ing whether the changes in brain activ­i­ty that occur after train­ing for 30 hours with Space Fortress, a com­plex cog­ni­tive train­ing video game, would be pre­dic­tive of indi­vid­ual dif­fer­ences in per­for­mance changes in an untrained work­ing mem­o­ry task. The Space Fortress train­ing task is quite com­plex, tar­get­ing work­ing mem­o­ry, exec­u­tive func­tion­ing, motor con­trol, and atten­tion, and cer­tain aspects of the train­ing are quite sim­i­lar to an untrained work­ing mem­o­ry task known as the Stern­berg Mem­o­ry Task. There­fore, we expect­ed to find that train­ing induced plas­tic­i­ty in regions of the brain impor­tant for work­ing mem­o­ry would pre­dict post-train­ing improve­ments in an untrained work­ing mem­o­ry task, (i.e. trans­fer of train­ing effects).

Once the study was com­plet­ed, we found evi­dence sup­port­ing this asser­tion. Specif­i­cal­ly, we found that changes in brain acti­va­tion in the tar­get areas, which we label as train­ing-induced plas­tic­i­ty, pre­dict­ed 37% of the vari­ance in the per­for­mance changes in the untrained work­ing mem­o­ry task. This sug­gests that those indi­vid­u­als that demon­strat­ed the great­est ben­e­fit from the train­ing were also those on whom the train­ing had the great­est neur­al impact. Fur­ther­more, the impor­tance of the neur­al impact was spe­cif­ic to areas of the brain already known to be involved in the cog­ni­tive con­struct that is involved in the untrained (trans­fer) task. Pre­vi­ous research in cog­ni­tive train­ing has found that untrained improve­ments simul­ta­ne­ous­ly occur with changes in brain activ­i­ty in work­ing mem­o­ry asso­ci­at­ed areas, such as the cau­date, an area known to be impor­tant for work­ing mem­o­ry and pro­ce­dur­al learn­ing (Dahlin et al. 2008), and our find­ings extend this research by demon­strat­ing that this plas­tic­i­ty actu­al­ly pre­dicts the behav­ioral changes that occur after train­ing.

In oth­er words, cog­ni­tive train­ing can trans­fer to a real-life activ­i­ty when it changes the brain regions under­ly­ing per­for­mance in that real-life activ­i­ty.  Our find­ings offer some of the first con­fir­ma­to­ry sup­port to the neur­al over­lap of how trans­fer of train­ing occurs. Fur­ther­more, these find­ings sug­gest that future cog­ni­tive train­ing stud­ies should be designed for max­i­mum impact on brain activ­i­ty. This might be achieved, for exam­ple, by com­bin­ing cog­ni­tive train­ing with an exer­cise reg­i­men and using phys­i­cal activ­i­ty to up-reg­u­late bio­mark­ers asso­ci­at­ed with neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty. Sim­i­lar­ly, dur­ing the cog­ni­tive train­ing ses­sions, brain stim­u­la­tion such as trans-cra­nial direct cur­rent stim­u­la­tion ‑which has also been shown to increase lev­els of sev­er­al bio­mark­ers asso­ci­at­ed with neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty- might be applied.

For more infor­ma­tion on our study, and how it relates to the cur­rent state of the cog­ni­tive train­ing lit­er­a­ture, please see our open access paper recent­ly pub­lished in Fron­tiers in Human Neu­ro­sciencePari­etal plas­tic­i­ty after train­ing with a com­plex video game is asso­ci­at­ed with indi­vid­ual dif­fer­ences in improve­ments in an untrained work­ing mem­o­ry task

Aki_Nikolaidis-- Aki Niko­laidis is a grad­u­ate stu­dent at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois Urbana Cham­paign. His work focus­es on under­stand­ing how brain plas­tic­i­ty con­tributes to learn­ing and enhance­ment of cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties.

Relat­ed arti­cles:

Leave a Reply...

Loading Facebook Comments ...

Leave a Reply

Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Health & Wellness, Technology

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

About SharpBrains

As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

Search in our archives

Follow us and Engage via…

RSS Feed

Watch All Recordings Now (40+ Speakers, 12+ Hours)