Study explains how brain training improves performance on a given task

Published on January 3, 2014 at 3:21 AM · No Comments

Revealing pattern of changes detected in brain using MRI as 'trained' subjects show improved self-control

Search for "brain training" on the Web. You'll find online exercises, games, software, even apps, all designed to prepare your brain to do better on any number of tasks. Do they 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 Jan. 1 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 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, said Berkman, who directs the psychology department's Social and Affective Neuroscience Lab.

"With training, the brain activity became linked to specific cues that predicted when inhibitory control might be needed," he said. "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 (27 male, 33 females and ranging from 18 to 30 years old) 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 -- 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.

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