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Johns Hopkins study shows how brain training, if correctly targeted, can enhance cognitive and brain performance


This train­ing exer­cise boosts brain pow­er, Johns Hop­kins researchers say (Johns Hop­kins release)

One of the two brain-train­ing meth­ods most sci­en­tists use in research is sig­nif­i­cant­ly bet­ter in improv­ing mem­o­ry and atten­tion, Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­si­ty researchers found. It also results in more sig­nif­i­cant changes in brain activ­i­ty.

Though this exer­cise did­n’t make any­one smarter, it great­ly improved skills peo­ple need to excel at school and at work. These results, pub­lished this week by the Jour­nal of Cog­ni­tive Enhance­ment, sug­gest it’s pos­si­ble to train the brain like oth­er body parts—with tar­get­ed work­outs.

Peo­ple say cog­ni­tive train­ing either works or does­n’t work. We showed that it mat­ters what kind of train­ing you’re doing,” said lead author Kara J. Black­er, a for­mer Johns Hop­kins post-doc­tor­al fel­low in psy­cho­log­i­cal and brain sciences…Scientists try­ing to deter­mine if brain exer­cis­es make peo­ple smarter have had mixed results. Johns Hop­kins researchers sus­pect­ed the prob­lem was­n’t the idea of brain train­ing, but the type of exer­cise researchers chose to test it…

The researchers found that the group that prac­ticed what’s known as a “dual n‑back” exer­cise showed a 30 per­cent improve­ment in their work­ing mem­o­ry. That was near­ly dou­ble the gains made by the group work­ing with the oth­er com­mon task, known as “com­plex span.” The dual n‑back group also showed sig­nif­i­cant changes in brain activ­i­ty in the pre­frontal cor­tex, the crit­i­cal region respon­si­ble for high­er learn­ing.”

The Study

N‑back Ver­sus Com­plex Span Work­ing Mem­o­ry Train­ing (Jour­nal of Cog­ni­tive Enhance­ment)

  • From the abstract: Work­ing mem­o­ry (WM) is the abil­i­ty to main­tain and manip­u­late task-rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion in the absence of sen­so­ry input. While its improve­ment through train­ing is of great inter­est, the degree to which WM train­ing trans­fers to untrained WM tasks (near trans­fer) and oth­er untrained cog­ni­tive skills (far trans­fer) remains debat­ed and the mechanism(s) under­ly­ing trans­fer are unclear…Participants com­plet­ed adap­tive train­ing on either a dual n‑back task, a sym­me­try span task, or on a non-WM active con­trol task. We found evi­dence of near trans­fer for the dual n‑back group; how­ev­er, far trans­fer to a mea­sure of flu­id intel­li­gence did not emerge. Record­ing EEG dur­ing a sep­a­rate WM trans­fer task, we exam­ined group-spe­cif­ic, train­ing-relat­ed changes in alpha pow­er, which are pro­posed to be sen­si­tive to WM demands and top-down mod­u­la­tion of WM. Results indi­cat­ed that the dual n‑back group showed sig­nif­i­cant­ly greater frontal alpha pow­er after train­ing com­pared to before train­ing, more so than both oth­er groups. How­ev­er, we found no evi­dence of improve­ment on mea­sures of rela­tion­al WM for the dual n‑back group, sug­gest­ing that near trans­fer may not be depen­dent on rela­tion­al WM. These results sug­gest that dual n‑back and com­plex span task train­ing may dif­fer in their effec­tive­ness to elic­it near trans­fer as well as in the under­ly­ing neur­al changes they facil­i­tate.

The Study in Context

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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.

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