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Brain Training Works “With a Catch”

Do online exercises, games, software, and apps designed to “train your brain” really work? University of Oregon psychologists say, yes, but “there’s a catch.”

The catch, according to Elliot T. Berkman, a professor in the Department of Psychology and lead author on a study published in the January 1st 2014 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, is that training for a particular task does heighten performance, but that advantage doesn’t necessarily carry over to a new challenge.

The team specifically studied “”inhibitory control”, a type of self control. The release quotes Berkman as saying, “With training, the brain activity became linked to specific cues that predicted when inhibitory control might be needed. 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.”

Sixty participants took part in a three-phase study. 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 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 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.

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 concluded, will be to identify protocols that might generate greater positive and lasting effects.

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