Training the Brain – Strengthening Neural Networks

Brain training, or cognitive training, refers to a set of different activities or games that are tailored to enhance or maintain an individual’s cognitive abilities, especially later in life.

Cognitive Brain Game

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Several studies have shown the positive effect of brain training on cognition by strengthening neural networks, however, not all studies find such associations.

What is Cognitive Training?

Cognitive (or brain) training includes a range of activities that are aimed at specific elements of cognition, such as those that test your working memory, reasoning & judgment, problem-solving, and attention.

Cognitively stimulating activities can include mind-teaser games such as specific apps, crosswords, and sudoku, educational activities such as quizzes, intellectual inquiries, and mental challenges, in addition to some video games.

How Does Cognitive Training Work?

A lot of evidence points towards the fact that those with a higher cognitive reserve or ability (such as through educational attainment) or those that work in stimulating professions (such as teachers) often have a reduced risk of developing cognitive decline.

Thus, brain training works on the hypothesis that training your brain to strengthen neural networks and increasing your cognitive reserve could improve your overall cognitive abilities and perhaps prevent the onset of cognitive decline.

Neuroplasticity refers to the brain’s adaptation continuously through life in which it can make more synaptic connections in the process of active learning and consolidating new memories, knowledge, and skills.

By making more connections, more synaptic death needs to occur before cognitive decline can occur. By actively training your brain, you can use neuroplasticity to your benefit by increasing the number of synaptic connections and thus maintaining cognitive ability as we age, and by reducing the speed of cognitive decline.

Does Cognitive Training Work?

The evidence for brain training is often mixed and contradictory. Nonetheless, there is a plethora of scientific evidence that supports the role of brain training in strengthening neural networks and maintaining or even improving cognitive abilities in everyday life.

In one study, 51 healthy subjects were asked to use computerized training games for 15 minutes each day for 7 days a week lasting 3 weeks. These 51 subjects were compared to a group of 21 individuals who did not perform any training.

Baseline cognitive assessments were made prior to training or no training (CANTAB test), in addition to 3 weeks after training or no training was completed. In this study, there was a positive correlation between brain training and cognitive assessment compared to the non-brain training group.

The overall changes to measures such attention-switching task correct latency were small but significant.

Studies looking at cognitive training specifically for elderly individuals and those affected by neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s tend to show positive associations with brain training and a slowdown of cognitive decline.

In one study, 62 mild cognitive impairment subjects (aged 60+) were recruited in a randomized controlled trial of which 33 received cognitive training, and 29 received mental leisure activities (non-training).

There were training sessions lasting 8 weeks, 2 times/week for 40-60 minutes each. The control group underwent similar timescales, but of simple leisure activities such as watching TV and chatting.

The results showed that compared to the leisure activity group, those undergoing brain training scored better on overall cognitive function including working memory, executive function, and improvements to activities of daily living.

Furthermore, these Improvements could be maintained for around 3 months post-training. The longer-lasting effects shown in this study support the notion that brain training can induce neuroplasticity to strengthen neural networks building up a higher cognitive reserve or capacity.

Despite all the evidence discussed so far in support of brain training, a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience did not find any positive associations with cognitive training on brain activity, behavior or cognition.

The issue, however, is that in this, study young and healthy individuals were recruited – who often would display peak cognitive abilities (already displaying very high scores) and the methods of brain training used would not significantly improve cognitive ability in this group.

However, even the authors of this study conclude that different sets of brain training activities that activate more than one cognitive domain could lead to overall improvements to cognitive abilities.

Others argue that physical activity and socializing are much superior compared to any brain training game, in addition to ensuring you get at least 7/8 hours of sleep.

Improvements to cardiovascular health are paramount in the improvements of overall bodily health, and in particular brain health. This is because the brain, whilst only weighing 2% of total body weight, receives 1/5th of all the blood flow in the body every minute.

Thus, enhanced cardiovascular health would undoubtedly lead to improvements in cerebrovascular health. For a guide to maintaining a healthy memory, click here.

In summary, numerous studies have shown the beneficial effects of brain training on maintaining or improving cognitive abilities by strengthening neural networks.

Specifically, for those that are at risk of cognitive impairment, both animal and clinical studies have shown that brain training could be effective in preserving some degree of cognitive ability.

However, not all studies have shown such effects, and other efforts such as physical activity and socializing are more important for maintaining overall brain health. Nevertheless, brain training can only reinforce neural networks and can be used in combination with other physical activities in maintaining good brain health.

Brain Game

Image Credit: Radachynskyi Serhii/Shutterstock.com

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Last Updated: May 27, 2020

Osman Shabir

Written by

Osman Shabir

Osman is a Neuroscience PhD Research Student at the University of Sheffield studying the impact of cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer's disease on neurovascular coupling using pre-clinical models and neuroimaging techniques.

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