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"This result is important because it explains how brain training improves performance on a given task—and also why the performance boost doesn't generalize beyond that task," says Elliot Berkman. (Credit: John Eby/Flickr)

brains

Brain training works, but there’s a catch

A web search for “brain training” will bring up online exercises, games, software, and apps, all designed to prepare your brain to do better on any number of tasks.

A new study shows that brain training for a particular task does heighten performance, but that advantage doesn’t necessarily carry over to a new challenge.

The training provided in the study caused a proactive shift in inhibitory control. However, it is not clear if the improvement attained extends to other kinds of executive function such as working memory, because the team’s sole focus was on inhibitory control, says Elliot T. Berkman, a professor in the University of Oregon psychology department and director of the Social and Affective Neuroscience Lab.

“With training, the brain activity became linked to specific cues that predicted when inhibitory control might be needed,” he says. “This result is important because it explains how brain training improves performance on a given task—and also why the performance boost doesn’t generalize beyond that task.”

Activity in the right anterior frontal gyrus (yellow) shifted during control (reactive) to before control (proactive). (Credit: Eliot Berkman)
Activity in the right anterior frontal gyrus (yellow) shifted during control (reactive) to before control (proactive). (Credit: Elliot Berkman)

Brain training ‘stop and go’

Sixty participants (27 male, 33 females and ranging from 18 to 30 years old) took part in a three-phase study that appears in the Journal of Neuroscience. Change in their brain activity was monitored with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Half of the subjects were in the experimental group that was trained with a task that models inhibitory control—one kind of self-control—as a race between a “go” process and a “stop” process. A faster stop process indicates more efficient inhibitory control.

In each of a series of trials, participants were given a “go” signal—an arrow pointing left or right. Subjects pressed a key corresponding to the direction of the arrow as quickly as possible, launching the go process. However, on 25 percent of the trials, a beep sounded after the arrow appeared, signaling participants to withhold their button press, launching the stop process.

Participants practiced either the stop-signal task or a control task that didn’t affect inhibitory control every other day for three weeks. Performance improved more in the training group than in the control group.

Neural activity was monitored using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which captures changes in blood oxygen levels, during a stop-signal task. Activity in the inferior frontal gyrus and anterior cingulate cortex—brain regions that regulate inhibitory control—decreased during inhibitory control but increased immediately before it in the training group more than in the control group.

What would work better?

The fMRI results identified three regions of the brain of the trained subjects that showed changes during the task, prompting the researchers to theorize that emotional regulation may have been improved by reducing distress and frustration during the trials.

Overall, the size of the training effect is small. A challenge for future research, they conclude, will be to identify protocols that might generate greater positive and lasting effects.

Co-authors with Berkman were Lauren E. Kahn and Junaid S. Merchant, doctoral students in psychology. Internal faculty research awards supported the project. MRI work was done in the Robert and Beverly Lewis Center for Neuroimaging.

Source: University of Oregon

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