Latest Research News
Findings from the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) Study, which followed 2,802 healthy older adults for 10 years, has found that those who participated in computer training designed to improve processing speed and visual attention had a 29% lower risk of developing dementia compared to controls, with more training producing lower risk. Those who received instruction in memory or reasoning strategies showed no change in dementia risk.
Participants were randomly placed into a control group or one of three different cognitive training groups. One was instructed in memory strategies, another in reasoning strategies, and one was given individualized, computerized speed of processing training.
There were 10 initial sessions of training, each 60 to 75 minutes, over six weeks. Participants were assessed at the beginning of the study, after the first six weeks, and at one, two, three, five, and 10 years. Some of each group received four additional “booster” training sessions in months 11 and 35.
Among those who completed the most sessions (5 or more booster sessions), indicators of dementia were evident in 5.9% of the computerized speed training group; 9.7% of the memory strategy group; 10.1% of the reasoning strategy group. The control group had a dementia incidence rate of 10.8%.
14% of those who received no training developed dementia in the next 10 years, compared with 12.1% of those who received the initial processing speed training, and 8.2% of those who also received the additional booster training.
A decade after training began, the scientists found that 22.7% of people in the speed training group had dementia, compared with 24.2% in both memory and reasoning groups. In a control group of people who had no training, the dementia rate was 28.8%. This effect is greater than the protection offered by antihypertensive medications against major cardiovascular events.
It's suggested that some of the reason for this effect may be that the training builds up brain reserve, perhaps by improving brain efficiency, or in some way improving the health of brain tissue.
Some of the participants told researchers that the training encouraged them to enroll in classes at a local college or keep driving, and it’s possible that the motivational boost for continued social and intellectual engagement might also help explain the benefits.
Other research has found that processing speed training is associated with a lower risk of depression and improved physical function, as well as better everyday functioning.
The processing speed training was designed to improve the speed and accuracy of visual attention, with both divided and selective attention exercises. To perform the divided attention training task, participants identified a central object—such as a truck—while simultaneously locating a target in the periphery—the car. The speed of these objects became increasingly faster as participants mastered each set. In the more difficult training tasks, adding distracting objects made the task even more challenging, thus engaging selective attention.
The training program is available as the “Double Decision” exercise in the BrainHQ.com commercial product.
Of the 1220 who completed the 10-year follow-up, 260 developed dementia during the period.
(2017). Speed of processing training results in lower risk of dementia.
Alzheimer's & Dementia: Translational Research & Clinical Interventions. 3(4), 603 - 611.
Full text available at https://www.trci.alzdem.com/article/S2352-8737(17)30059-8/fulltext
A small study involving 71 adults who struggled with persistent cognitive difficulties after suffering a traumatic brain injury at least four months before has compared two cognitive training programs with and without drug therapy.
The two six-week programs were
- Memory and Attention Adaptation Training program, a brief cognitive-behavioral therapy aimed at enhancing skills for self-managing and coping with cognitive failures in daily life. It includes four components:
- education regarding ‘normal’ cognitive failures, as well as potential effects of TBI on cognitive function
- self-awareness training to identify ‘at-risk’ situations where cognitive failures are likely to occur
- self-regulation training emphasizing applied relaxation techniques and stress management
- cognitive compensatory strategy training
- Attention Builders Training, involving
- repetitive cognitive tasks to build skills through ‘mental exercise’
- an educational component discussing common cognitive symptoms after TBI
Participants of both groups also received either the drug methylphenidate (Ritalin) or a placebo.
The best improvement (still modest) was noted in those who received methylphenidate along with the Memory and Attention Adaptation Training. They were better able to learn lists of words, while their working memory and their attention improved.
Do note, however, that these findings must be considered preliminary, due to the relatively small number of participants in the each group (17-19 people).
Paper available at https://www.nature.com/articles/npp2016261
McDonald, B.C. et al. 2016. Methylphenidate and Memory and Attention Adaptation Training for Persistent Cognitive Symptoms after Traumatic Brain Injury: A Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Trial, Neuropsychopharmacology. doi: 10.1038/npp.2016.261
Data from 2,800 participants (aged 65+) in the Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study has revealed that one type of cognitive training benefits less-educated people more than it does the more-educated.
While the effects of reasoning and memory training did not differ as a function of how much education the individual had, those older adults with less than a complete high school education experienced a 50% greater benefit from speed of information processing training than college graduates. This advantage was maintained for three years after the end of the training.
The training involved ten 60 to 75-minute sessions over six weeks that focused on visual search and processing information in shorter and shorter times.
Both reasoning and information processing speed training resulted in improved targeted cognitive abilities for 10 years among participants, but memory training did not. Memory training focused on mnemonic strategies for remembering lists and sequences of items, text material, and main ideas and details of stories and other text-based information. Reasoning training focused on improving the ability to solve problems containing a serial pattern.
The researchers speculate that speed of information processing training might help those with less than 12 years of education, who are at greater risk of dementia, close the gap between them and those with more education.
The training modules have been translated into online games delivered by Posit Science.
Less educated study participants were slightly older, less likely to be married, more likely to be African-American, and more likely to have hypertension or diabetes as well as heart disease than the more educated older adults.
(2015). Does targeted cognitive training reduce educational disparities in cognitive function among cognitively normal older adults?.
International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. n/a - n/a.
A systematic literature review of computerized training for attention and executive function in adults who suffered a brain injury (TBI or stroke) has concluded that there is encouraging evidence that such programs can help.
The review found 23 of 28 studies reported significant improvements in attention and executive function, with the remaining five showing promising trends. The studies included 11 that focused on TBI, of which 8 reported significant improvement; 5 that focused on stroke, of which all 5 showed significant improvement; 12 mixed-populations, of which 10 showed significant improvement.
Further studies are needed to confirm these results, as various methodological issues, such as a small number of participants, and inadequate controls, need to be addressed. The 28 studies included 9 that were rates as "class I" (the highest standard), 9 class II, and 7 that were class III (no controls). Almost all (26/28) of the studies involved fewer than 50 participants, with some having as few as 1 to 4. Most studies didn't specify how severe the injuries were, something which makes a big difference to treatment and expectations. Over a third of the studies (11) didn't have any control group, and only a few used the best sort of control - a comparable activity (as opposed to, say, no treatment). Only four studies provided any long-term follow-up.
As you can see, a lot of work is needed yet. Moreover, most programs were unique to the study, so we're still some way off producing recommended protocols. Only one program was used on multiple occasions (5): Cogmed QM (originally called RoboMemo).
Still, notwithstanding all these caveats, the review does support the value of specific training for those suffering brain injury.
(2015). Computerized Cognitive Rehabilitation of Attention and Executive Function in Acquired Brain Injury: A Systematic Review.
Journal of Head Trauma Rehabilitation. 1.
I've reported before on the idea that the drop in working memory capacity commonly seen in old age is related to the equally typical increase in distractability. Studies of brain activity have also indicated that lower WMC is correlated with greater storage of distractor information. So those with higher WMC, it's thought, are better at filtering out distraction and focusing only on the pertinent information. Older adults may show a reduced WMC, therefore, because their ability to ignore distraction and irrelevancies has declined.
Why does that happen?
A new, large-scale study using a smartphone game suggests that the root cause is a change in the way we hold items in working memory.
The study involved 29,631 people aged 18—69, who played a smartphone game in which they had to remember the positions of an increasing number of red circles. Yellow circles, which had to be ignored, could also appear — either at the same time as the red circles, or after them. Data from this game revealed both WMC (how many red circle locations the individual could remember), and distractability (how many red circle locations they could remember in the face of irrelevant yellow circles).
Now this game isn't simply a way of measuring WMC. It enables us to make an interesting distinction based on the timing of the distraction. If the yellow circles appeared at the same time as the red ones, they are providing distraction when you are trying to encode the information. If they appear afterward, the distraction occurs when you are trying to maintain the information in working memory.
Now it would seem commonsensical that distraction at the time of encoding must be the main problem, but the fascinating finding of this study is that it was distraction during the delay (while the information is being maintained in working memory) that was the greater problem. And it was this distraction that became more and more marked with increasing age.
The study is a follow-up to a smaller 2014 study that included two experiments: a lab experiment involving 21 young adults, and data from the same smartphone game involving only the younger cohort (18-29 years; 3247 participants).
This study demonstrated that distraction during encoding and distraction during delay were independent contributory factors to WMC, suggesting that separate mechanisms are involved in filtering out distraction at encoding and maintenance.
Interestingly, analysis of the data from the smartphone game did indicate some correlation between the two in that context. One reason may be that participants in the smartphone game were exposed to higher load trials (the lab study kept WM load constant); another might be that they were in more distracting environments.
While in general researchers have till now assumed that the two processes are not distinct, it has been theorized that distractor filtering at encoding may involve a 'selective gating mechanism', while filtering during WM maintenance may involve a shutting down of perception. The former has been linked to a gating mechanism in the striatum in the basal ganglia, while the latter has been linked to an increase in alpha waves in the frontal cortex, specifically, the left middle frontal gyrus. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex may also be involved in distractor filtering at encoding.
To return to the more recent study:
- there was a significant decrease in WMC with increasing age in all conditions (no distraction; encoding distraction; delay distraction)
- for older adults, the decrease in WMC was greatest in the delay distraction condition
- when 'distraction cost' was calculated (((ND score − (ED or DD score))/ND score) × 100), there was a significant correlation between delay distraction cost and age, but not between encoding distraction cost and age
- for older adults, performance in the encoding distraction condition was better predicted by performance in the no distraction condition than it was among the younger groups
- this correlation was significantly different between the 30-39 age group and the 40-49 age group, between the 40s and the 50s, and between the 50s and the 60s — showing that this is a progressive change
- older adults with a higher delay distraction cost (ie, those more affected by distractors during delay) also showed a significantly greater correlation between their no-distraction performance and encoding-distraction performance.
All of this suggests that older adults are focusing more attention during attention even when there is no distraction, and they are doing so to compensate for their reduced ability to maintain information in working memory.
This suggests several approaches to improving older adults' ability to cope:
- use perceptual discrimination training to help improve WMC
- make working memory training more about learning to ignore certain types of distraction
- reduce distraction — modify daily tasks to make them more "older adult friendly"
- (my own speculation) use meditation training to improve frontal alpha rhythms.
You can participate in the game yourself, at http://thegreatbrainexperiment.com/
(2015). Age-related changes in working memory and the ability to ignore distraction.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 112(20), 6515 - 6518.
McNab, F., & Dolan, R. J. (2014). Dissociating distractor-filtering at encoding and during maintenance. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Human Perception and Performance, 40(3), 960–7. doi:10.1037/a0036013
Here’s an exciting little study, implying as it does that one particular aspect of information processing underlies much of the cognitive decline in older adults, and that this can be improved through training. No, it’s not our usual suspect, working memory, it’s something far less obvious: temporal processing.
In the study, 30 older adults (aged 65-75) were randomly assigned to three groups: one that received ‘temporal training’, one that practiced common computer games (such as Solitaire and Mahjong), and a no-activity control. Temporal training was provided by a trademarked program called Fast ForWord Language® (FFW), which was developed to help children who have trouble reading, writing, and learning.
The training, for both training groups, occupied an hour a day, four days a week, for eight weeks.
Cognitive assessment, carried out at the beginning and end of the study, and for the temporal training group again 18 months later, included tests of sequencing abilities (how quickly two sounds could be presented and still be accurately assessed for pitch or direction), attention (vigilance, divided attention, and alertness), and short-term memory (working memory span, pattern recognition, and pattern matching).
Only in the temporal training group did performance on any of the cognitive tests significantly improve after training — on the sequencing tests, divided attention, matching complex patterns, and working memory span. These positive effects still remained after 18 months (vigilance was also higher at the end of training, but this improvement wasn’t maintained).
This is, of course, only a small pilot study. I hope we will see a larger study, and one that compares this form of training against other computer training programs. It would also be good to see some broader cognitive tests — ones that are less connected to the temporal training. But I imagine that, as I’ve discussed before, an effective training program will include more than one type of training. This may well be an important component of such a program.
(2012). Cognitive function in elderly can be ameliorated by training in temporal information processing.
Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience. 30(5), 419 - 434.
The research is pretty clear by this point: humans are not (with a few rare exceptions) designed to multitask. However, it has been suggested that the modern generation, with all the multitasking they do, may have been ‘re-wired’ to be more capable of this. A new study throws cold water on this idea.
The study involved 60 undergraduate students, of whom 34 were skilled action video game players (all male) and 26 did not play such games (19 men and 7 women). The students were given three visual tasks, each of which they did on its own and then again while answering Trivial Pursuit questions over a speakerphone (designed to mimic talking on a cellphone).
The tasks included a video driving game (“TrackMania”), a multiple-object tracking test (similar to a video version of a shell game), and a visual search task (hidden pictures puzzles from Highlights magazine).
While the gamers were (unsurprisingly) significantly better at the video driving game, the non-gamers were just as good as them at the other two tasks. In the dual-tasking scenarios, performance declined on all the tasks, with the driving task most affected. While the gamers were affected less by multitasking during the driving task compared to the non-gamers, there was no difference in the amount of decline between gamers and non-gamers on the other two tasks.
Clearly, the smaller effect of dual-tasking on the driving game for gamers is a product of their greater expertise at the driving game, rather than their ability to multitask better. It is well established that the more skilled you are at a task, the more automatic it becomes, and thus the less working memory capacity it will need. Working memory capacity / attention is the bottleneck that prevents us from being true multitaskers.
In other words, the oft-repeated (and somewhat depressing) conclusion remains: you can’t learn to multitask in general, you can only improve specific skills, enabling you to multitask reasonably well while doing those specific tasks.
(2012). Cognitive pitfall! Videogame players are not immune to dual-task costs.
Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics. 74(5), 803 - 809.
Following on from research finding that people who regularly play action video games show visual attention related differences in brain activity compared to non-players, a new study has investigated whether such changes could be elicited in 25 volunteers who hadn’t played video games in at least four years. Sixteen of the participants played a first-person shooter game (Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault), while nine played a three-dimensional puzzle game (Ballance). They played the games for a total of 10 hours spread over one- to two-hour sessions.
Selective attention was assessed through an attentional visual field task, carried out prior to and after the training program. Individual learning differences were marked, and because of visible differences in brain activity after training, the action gamers were divided into two groups for analysis — those who performed above the group mean on the second attentional visual field test (7 participants), and those who performed below the mean (9). These latter individuals showed similar brain activity patterns as those in the control (puzzle) group.
In all groups, early-onset brainwaves were little affected by video game playing. This suggests that game-playing has little impact on bottom–up attentional processes, and is in keeping with earlier research showing that players and non-players don’t differ in the extent to which their attention is captured by outside stimuli.
However, later brainwaves — those thought to reflect top–down control of selective attention via increased inhibition of distracters — increased significantly in the group who played the action game and showed above-average improvement on the field test. Another increased wave suggests that the total amount of attention allocated to the task was also greater in that group (i.e., they were concentrating more on the game than the below-average group, and the control group).
The improved ability to select the right targets and ignore other stimuli suggests, too, that these players are also improving their ability to make perceptual decisions.
The next question, of course, is what personal variables underlie the difference between those who benefit more quickly from the games, and those who don’t. And how much more training is necessary for this latter group, and are there some people who won’t achieve these benefits at all, no matter how long they play? Hopefully, future research will be directed to these questions.
(2012). Playing a First-person Shooter Video Game Induces Neuroplastic Change.
Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. 24(6), 1286 - 1293.
Back in 2008, I reported on a small study that found that daily doses of Pycnogenol® for three months improved working memory in older adults, and noted research indicating that the extract from the bark of the French maritime pine tree had reduced symptoms in children with ADHD. Now another study, involving 53 Italian university students, has found that cognitive performance improved in those taking 100 mg of Pycnogenol every day for eight weeks.
Students taking the supplement had higher scores on university exams than the control group, and they were apparently happier, less anxious, and more alert. It seems plausible that the improvement in academic performance results from working memory benefits.
The plant extract is an antioxidant, and benefits may have something to do with improved vascular function and blood flow in the brain.
However, the control group was apparently not given a placebo (I’m relying on the abstract and press release here, as this journal is not one to which I have access), they were simply “a group of equivalent students”. I cannot fathom why a double-blind, placebo procedure wasn’t followed, and it greatly lessens the conclusions of this study. Indeed, I wouldn’t ordinarily report on it, except that I have previously reported on this dietary supplement, and I am in hopes that a better study will come along. In the meantime, this is another small step, to which I wouldn’t give undue weight.
Luzzi R., Belcaro G., Zulli C., Cesarone M. R., Cornelli U., Dugall M., Hosoi M., Feragalli B. 2011. Pycnogenol® supplementation improves cognitive function, attention and mental performance in students. Panminerva Medica, 53(3 Suppl 1), 75-82.
I’ve always felt that better thinking was associated with my brain working ‘in a higher gear’ — literally working at a faster rhythm. So I was particularly intrigued by the findings of a recent mouse study that found that brainwaves associated with learning became stronger as the mice ran faster.
In the study, 12 male mice were implanted with microelectrodes that monitored gamma waves in the hippocampus, then trained to run back and forth on a linear track for a food reward. Gamma waves are thought to help synchronize neural activity in various cognitive functions, including attention, learning, temporal binding, and awareness.
We know that the hippocampus has specialized ‘place cells’ that record where we are and help us navigate. But to navigate the world, to create a map of where things are, we need to also know how fast we are moving. Having the same cells encode both speed and position could be problematic, so researchers set out to find how speed was being encoded. To their surprise and excitement, they found that the strength of the gamma rhythm grew substantially as the mice ran faster.
The results also confirmed recent claims that the gamma rhythm, which oscillates between 30 and 120 times a second, can be divided into slow and fast signals (20-45 Hz vs 45-120 Hz for mice, consistent with the 30-55 Hz vs 45-120 Hz bands found in rats) that originate from separate parts of the brain. The slow gamma waves in the CA1 region of the hippocampus were synchronized with slow gamma waves in CA3, while the fast gamma in CA1 were synchronized with fast gamma waves in the entorhinal cortex.
The two signals became increasingly separated with increasing speed, because the two bands were differentially affected by speed. While the slow waves increased linearly, the fast waves increased logarithmically. This differential effect could have to do with mechanisms in the source regions (CA3 and the medial entorhinal cortex, respectively), or to mechanisms in the different regions in CA1 where the inputs terminate (the waves coming from CA3 and the entorhinal cortex enter CA1 in different places).
In the hippocampus, gamma waves are known to interact with theta waves. Further analysis of the data revealed that the effects of speed on gamma rhythm only occurred within a narrow range of theta phases — but this ‘preferred’ theta phase also changed with running speed, more so for the slow gamma waves than the fast gamma waves (which is not inconsistent with the fact that slow gamma waves are more affected by running speed than fast gamma waves). Thus, while slow and fast gamma rhythms preferred similar phases of theta at low speeds, the two rhythms became increasingly phase-separated with increasing running speed.
What’s all this mean? Previous research has shown that if inputs from CA3 and the entorhinal cortex enter CA1 at the same time, the kind of long-term changes at the synapses that bring about learning are stronger and more likely in CA1. So at low speeds, synchronous inputs from CA3 and the entorhinal cortex at similar theta phases make them more effective at activating CA1 and inducing learning. But the faster you move, the more quickly you need to process information. The stronger gamma waves may help you do that. Moreover, the theta phase separation of slow and fast gamma that increases with running speed means that activity in CA3 (slow gamma source) increasingly anticipates activity in the medial entorhinal cortex (fast gamma source).
What does this mean at the practical level? Well at this point it can only be speculation that moving / exercising can affect learning and attention, but I personally am taking this on board. Most of us think better when we walk. This suggests that if you’re having trouble focusing and don’t have time for that, maybe walking down the hall or even jogging on the spot will help bring your brain cells into order!
Pushing speculation even further, I note that meditation by expert meditators has been associated with changes in gamma and theta rhythms. And in an intriguing comparison of the effect of spoken versus sung presentation on learning and remembering word lists, the group that sang showed greater coherence in both gamma and theta rhythms (in the frontal lobes, admittedly, but they weren’t looking elsewhere).
So, while we’re a long way from pinning any of this down, it may be that all of these — movement, meditation, music — can be useful in synchronizing your brain rhythms in a way that helps attention and learning. This exciting discovery will hopefully be the start of an exploration of these possibilities.
(2011). Speed Controls the Amplitude and Timing of the Hippocampal Gamma Rhythm.
PLoS ONE. 6(6), e21408 - e21408.
Full text available at http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0021408
(2010). From alpha to gamma: Electrophysiological correlates of meditation-related states of consciousness.
Medical Hypotheses. 75, 218 - 224.
(2007). Music increases frontal EEG coherence during verbal learning.
Neuroscience Letters. 412(3), 217 - 221.
It has been difficult to train individuals in such a way that they improve in general skills rather than the specific ones used in training. However, recently some success has been achieved using what is called an “n-back” task, a task that involves presenting a series of visual and/or auditory cues to a subject and asking the subject to respond if that cue has occurred, to start with, one time back. If the subject scores well, the number of times back is increased each round.
In the latest study, 62 elementary and middle school children completed a month of training on a computer program, five times a week, for 15 minutes at a time. While the active control group trained on a knowledge and vocabulary-based task, the experimental group was given a demanding spatial task in which they were presented with a sequence of images at one of six locations, one at a time, at a rate of 3s. The child had to press one key whenever the current image was at the same location as the one n items back in the series, and another key if it wasn’t. Both tasks employed themed graphics to make the task more appealing and game-like.
How far back the child needed to remember depended on their performance — if they were struggling, n would be decreased; if they were meeting the challenge, n would be increased.
Although the experimental and active control groups showed little difference on abstract reasoning tasks (reflecting fluid intelligence) at the end of the training, when the experimental group was divided into two subgroups on the basis of training gain, the story was different. Those who showed substantial improvement on the training task over the month were significantly better than the others, on the abstract reasoning task. Moreover, this improvement was maintained at follow-up testing three months later.
The key to success seems to be whether or not the games hit the “sweet spot” for the individual — fun and challenging, but not so challenging as to be frustrating. Those who showed the least improvement rated the game as more difficult, while those who improved the most found it challenging but not overwhelming.
You can try this task yourself at http://brainworkshop.sourceforge.net/.
Jaeggi, Susanne M, Martin Buschkuehl, John Jonides, and Priti Shah. “Short- and long-term benefits of cognitive training.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2011 (June 13, 2011): 2-7. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21670271.
(2008). From the Cover: Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 105(19), 6829 - 6833.
I’ve always been intrigued by neurofeedback training. But when it first raised its head, technology was far less sophisticated. Now a new study has used real-time functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) feedback from the rostrolateral prefrontal cortex to improve people's ability to control their thoughts and focus their attention.
In the study, participants performed tasks that either raised or lowered mental introspection in 30-second intervals over four six-minute sessions. Those with access to real-time fMRI feedback could see their RLPFC activity increase during introspection and decrease during non-introspective thoughts, such as mental tasks that focused on body sensations. These participants became significantly better at controlling their thoughts and performing the mental tasks. Moreover, the improved regulation was reflected only in activity in the rostrolateral prefrontal cortex. Those given inaccurate or no brain feedback showed no such improvement.
The findings point to a means of improving attentional control, and also raise hope for clinical treatments of conditions that can benefit from improved awareness and regulation of one's thoughts, including depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorders.
(2011). Improved modulation of rostrolateral prefrontal cortex using real-time fMRI training and meta-cognitive awareness.
NeuroImage. 55(3), 1298 - 1305.
We’ve all experienced the fading of our ability to concentrate when we’ve been focused on a task for too long. The dominant theory of why this should be so has been around for half a century, and describes attention as a limited resource that gets ‘used up’. Well, attention is assuredly a limited resource in the sense that you only have so much of it to apply. But is it limited in the sense of being used up and needing to refresh? A new study indicates that it isn’t.
The researchers make what strikes me as a cogent argument: attention is an endless resource; we are always paying attention to something. The problem is our ability to maintain attention on a single task without respite. Articulated like this, we are immediately struck by the parallel with perception. Any smell, touch, sight, sound, that remains constant eventually stops registering with us. We become habituated to it. Is that what’s happening with attention? Is it a form of habituation?
In an experimental study, 84 volunteers were tested on their ability to focus on a repetitive computerized task for 50 minutes under various conditions: one group had no breaks or distractions; two groups memorized four digits beforehand and were told to respond if they saw them on the screen during the task (but only one group were shown them during the task); one group were shown the digits but told to ignore them if they saw them.
As expected, performance declined significantly over the course of the task for most participants — with the exception of those who were twice shown the memorized digits and had to respond to them. That was all it took, a very brief break in the task, and their focus was maintained.
The finding suggests that prolonged attention to a single task actually hinders performance, but briefly deactivating and reactivating your goals is all you need to stay focused.
(2011). Brief and rare mental "breaks" keep you focused: Deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements.
Cognition. 118(3), 439 - 443.
In a study in which 14 volunteers were trained to recognize a faint pattern of bars on a computer screen that continuously decreased in faintness, the volunteers became able to recognize fainter and fainter patterns over some 24 days of training, and this correlated with stronger EEG signals from their brains as soon as the pattern flashed on the screen. The findings indicate that learning modified the very earliest stage of visual processing.
The findings could help shape training programs for people who must learn to detect subtle patterns quickly, such as doctors reading X-rays or air traffic controllers monitoring radars, and may also help improve training for adults with visual deficits such as lazy eye.
The findings are also noteworthy for showing that learning is not confined to ‘higher-order’ processes, but can occur at even the most basic, unconscious and automatic, level of processing.
(2010). Perceptual Learning Increases the Strength of the Earliest Signals in Visual Cortex.
J. Neurosci.. 30(45), 15080 - 15084.
Following on from earlier research suggesting that simply talking helps keep your mind sharp at all ages, a new study involving 192 undergraduates indicates that the type of talking makes a difference. Engaging in brief (10 minute) conversations in which participants were simply instructed to get to know another person resulted in boosts to their executive function (the processes involved in working memory, planning, decision-making, and so on). However when participants engaged in conversations that had a competitive edge, their performance showed no improvement. The improvement was limited to executive function; neither processing speed nor general knowledge was affected.
Further experiments indicated that competitive discussion could boost executive function — if the conversations were structured to allow for interpersonal engagement. The crucial factor seems to be the process of getting into another person’s mind and trying to see things from their point of view (something most of us do naturally in conversation).
The findings also provide support for the social brain hypothesis — that we evolved our larger brains to help us deal with large social groups. They also support earlier speculations by the researcher, that parents and teachers could help children improve their intellectual skills by encouraging them to develop their social skills.
(2010). Friends (and Sometimes Enemies) With Cognitive Benefits: What Types of Social Interactions Boost Executive Functioning?.
Social Psychological and Personality Science.
While brain training programs can certainly improve your ability to do the task you’re practicing, there has been little evidence that this transfers to other tasks. In particular, the holy grail has been very broad transfer, through improvement in working memory. While there has been some evidence of this in pilot programs for children with ADHD, a new study is the first to show such improvement in older adults using a commercial brain training program.
A study involving 30 healthy adults aged 60 to 89 has demonstrated that ten hours of training on a computer game designed to boost visual perception improved perceptual abilities significantly, and also increased the accuracy of their visual working memory to the level of younger adults. There was a direct link between improved performance and changes in brain activity in the visual association cortex.
The computer game was one of those developed by Posit Science. Memory improvement was measured about one week after the end of training. The improvement did not, however, withstand multi-tasking, which is a particular problem for older adults. The participants, half of whom underwent the training, were college educated. The training challenged players to discriminate between two different shapes of sine waves (S-shaped patterns) moving across the screen. The memory test (which was performed before and after training) involved watching dots move across the screen, followed by a short delay and then re-testing for the memory of the exact direction the dots had moved.
(2010). The Influence of Perceptual Training on Working Memory in Older Adults.
PLoS ONE. 5(7), e11537 - e11537.
Full text available at http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0011537
A study involving 155 women aged 65-75 has found that those who participated in resistance training once or twice weekly for a year significantly improved their selective attention (maintaining mental focus) and conflict resolution (as well as muscular function of course!), compared to those who participated in twice-weekly balance and tone training. Performance on the Stroop test improved by 12.6% and 10.9% in the once-weekly and twice-weekly resistance training groups respectively, while it deteriorated by 0.5% in the balance and tone group. Improved attention and conflict resolution was also significantly associated with increased gait speed.
(2010). Resistance Training and Executive Functions: A 12-Month Randomized Controlled Trial.
Arch Intern Med. 170(2), 170 - 178.
A study following nearly 1300 young children from birth through the first grade provides more evidence for the importance of self-regulation for academic achievement. The study found that children showing strong self-regulation in preschool and kindergarten did significantly better on math, reading and vocabulary at the end of first grade, independent of poverty, ethnic status, and maternal education (all of which had significant negative effects on reading, math, and vocabulary achievement in first grade). At-risk children with stronger self-regulation in kindergarten scored 15 points higher on a standardized math test in first grade, 11 points higher on an early reading test, and nearly seven points higher on a vocabulary test than at-risk children with weaker self-regulation. The findings emphasize the need to help children learn how to listen, pay attention, follow instructions, and persist on a task.
(Submitted). Relations between early family risk, children's behavioral regulation, and academic achievement.
Early Childhood Research Quarterly. In Press, Uncorrected Proof,
A rat study shows how Ritalin improves concentration and, it now appears, speed of learning. The study reveals that it does this by increasing the activity of dopamine at two specific types of neurotransmitter receptors in the amygdala. The dopamine receptor tagged “D2” appears to control the ability to stay focused on a task, while the D1 receptor underlies learning efficiency. The finding may help the development of better-targeted drugs.
(2010). Methylphenidate facilitates learning-induced amygdala plasticity.
Nat Neurosci. 13(4), 475 - 481.
Older news items (pre-2010) brought over from the old website
Music training helps you hear better in noisy rooms
I’ve often talked about the benefits of musical training for cognition, but here’s a totally new benefit. A study involving 31 younger adults (19-32) with normal hearing has found that musicians (at least 10 years of music experience; music training before age 7; practicing more than 3 times weekly within previous 3 years) were significantly better at hearing and repeating sentences in increasingly noisy conditions, than the non-musicians. The number of years of music practice also correlated positively with better working memory and better tone discrimination ability. Hearing speech in noisy environments is of course difficult for everyone, but particularly for older adults, who are likely to have hearing and memory loss, and for poor readers.
(2009). Musician enhancement for speech-in-noise.
Ear and Hearing. 30(6), 653 - 661.
Meditation technique can temporarily improve visuospatial abilities
And continuing on the subject of visual short-term memory, a study involving experienced practitioners of two styles of meditation: Deity Yoga (DY) and Open Presence (OP) has found that, although meditators performed similarly to nonmeditators on two types of visuospatial tasks (mental rotation and visual memory), when they did the tasks immediately after meditating for 20 minutes (while the nonmeditators rested or did something else), practitioners of the DY style of meditation showed a dramatic improvement compared to OP practitioners and controls. In other words, although the claim that regular meditation practice can increase your short-term memory capacity was not confirmed, it does appear that some forms of meditation can temporarily (and dramatically) improve it. Since the form of meditation that had this effect was one that emphasizes visual imagery, it does support the idea that you can improve your imagery and visual memory skills (even if you do need to ‘warm up’ before the improvement is evident).
(2009). The enhancement of visuospatial processing efficiency through Buddhist Deity meditation.
Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS. 20(5), 645 - 653.
A walk in the park a day keeps mental fatigue away
Many of us who work indoors are familiar with the benefits of a walk in the fresh air, but a new study gives new insight into why, and how, it works. In two experiments, researchers found memory performance and attention spans improved by 20% after people spent an hour interacting with nature. The intriguing finding was that this effect was achieved not only by walking in the botanical gardens (versus walking along main streets of Ann Arbor), but also by looking at photos of nature (versus looking at photos of urban settings). The findings are consistent with a theory that natural environments are better at restoring attention abilities, because they provide a more coherent pattern of stimulation that requires less effort, as opposed to urban environments that are provide complex and often confusing stimulation that captures attention dramatically and requires directed attention (e.g., to avoid being hit by a car).
(2008). The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature.
Psychological Science: A Journal of the American Psychological Society / APS. 19(12), 1207 - 1212.
Even toddlers can ‘chunk' information for better remembering
We all know it’s easier to remember a long number (say a phone number) when it’s broken into chunks. Now a study has found that we don’t need to be taught this; it appears to come naturally to us. The study showed 14 months old children could track only three hidden objects at once, in the absence of any grouping cues, demonstrating the standard limit of working memory. However, with categorical or spatial cues, the children could remember more. For example, when four toys consisted of two groups of two familiar objects, cats and cars, or when six identical orange balls were grouped in three groups of two.
(2008). From the Cover: Conceptual knowledge increases infants' memory capacity.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 105(29), 9926 - 9930.
Full text available at http://www.pnas.org/content/105/29/9926.abstract?sid=c01302b6-cd8e-4072-842c-7c6fcd40706f
Brain-training to improve working memory boosts fluid intelligence
General intelligence is often separated into "fluid" and "crystalline" components, of which fluid intelligence is considered more reflective of “pure” intelligence (for more on this, see my article at http://www.memory-key.com//memory/individual/wm-intelligence), and largely resistant to training and learning effects. However, in a new study in which participants were given a series of training exercises designed to improve their working memory, fluid intelligence was found to have significantly improved, with the amount of improvement increasing with time spent training. The small study contradicts decades of research showing that improving on one kind of cognitive task does not improve performance on other kinds, so has been regarded with some skepticism by other researchers. More research is definitely needed, but the memory task did differ from previous studies, engaging executive functions such as those that inhibit irrelevant items, monitor performance, manage two tasks simultaneously, and update memory.
(2008). From the Cover: Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 105(19), 6829 - 6833.
Teaching older brains to regain youthful skills
Researchers have succeeded in training seniors to multitask at the same level as younger adults. Over the course of two weeks, both younger and older subjects learned to identify a letter flashed quickly in the middle of a computer screen and simultaneously localize the position of a spot flashed quickly in the periphery as well as they could perform either task on its own. The older adults did take longer than the younger adults to reach the same level of performance, but they did reach it.
(2006). Age related differences in learning with the useful field of view.
Vision Research. 46(25), 4217 - 4231.
Novelty aids learning
We’ve long suspected that the human brain is particularly attracted to new information. Research now reveals that the brain region that regulates our levels of motivation and our ability to predict rewards, by releasing dopamine in the frontal and temporal regions of the brain, responds better to novelty than to the familiar. Behavioral experiments also revealed that participants best remembered the images they had been shown when new images were mixed in with slightly familiar images during learning. It’s worth noting that this midbrain area (substantia nigra/ventral tegmentum) responded strongly only to completely new stimuli.
(2006). Absolute Coding of Stimulus Novelty in the Human Substantia Nigra/VTA.
Neuron. 51(3), 369 - 379.
Support for labeling as an aid to memory
A study involving an amnesia-inducing drug has shed light on how we form new memories. Participants in the study participants viewed words, photographs of faces and landscapes, and abstract pictures one at a time on a computer screen. Twenty minutes later, they were shown the words and images again, one at a time. Half of the images they had seen earlier, and half were new. They were then asked whether they recognized each one. For one session they were given midazolam, a drug used to relieve anxiety during surgical procedures that also causes short-term anterograde amnesia, and for one session they were given a placebo.
It was found that the participants' memory while in the placebo condition was best for words, but the worst for abstract images. Midazolam impaired the recognition of words the most, impaired memory for the photos less, and impaired recognition of abstract pictures hardly at all. The finding reinforces the idea that the ability to recollect depends on the ability to link the stimulus to a context, and that unitization increases the chances of this linking occurring. While the words were very concrete and therefore easy to link to the experimental context, the photographs were of unknown people and unknown places and thus hard to distinctively label. The abstract images were also unfamiliar and not unitized into something that could be described with a single word.
(2006). Drug-Induced Amnesia Hurts Recognition, but Only for Memories That Can Be Unitized.
Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS. 17(7), 562 - 567.
Language cues help visual learning in children
A study of 4-year-old children has found that language, in the form of specific kinds of sentences spoken aloud, helped them remember mirror image visual patterns. The children were shown cards bearing red and green vertical, horizontal and diagonal patterns that were mirror images of one another. When asked to choose the card that matched the one previously seen, the children tended to mistake the original card for its mirror image, showing how difficult it was for them to remember both color and location. However, if they were told, when viewing the original card, a mnemonic cue such as ‘The red part is on the left’, they performed “reliably better”.
The paper was presented by a graduate student at the 17th annual meeting of the American Psychological Society, held May 26-29 in Los Angeles.
Cognitive therapy for ADHD
A researcher that has previously demonstrated that working memory capacity can be increased through training, has now reported that the training software has produced significant improvement in children with ADHD — a disability that is associated with deficits in working memory. The study involved 53 children with ADHD, aged 7-12, who were not on medication for their disability. 44 of these met the criterion of more than 20 days of training. Half the participants were assigned to the working memory training program and the other half to a comparison program. 60% of those who underwent the wm training program no longer met the clinical criteria for ADHD after five weeks of training. The children were tested on visual-spatial memory, which has the strongest link to inattention and ADHD. Further research is needed to show that training improves ability on a wider range of tasks.
(2005). Computerized Training of Working Memory in Children With ADHD-A Randomized, Controlled Trial.
Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 44(2), 177 - 186.
Training improves working memory capacity
Working memory capacity has traditionally been thought to be constant. Recent studies, however, suggest that working memory can be improved by training. In this recent imaging study, it was found that adults who practiced working memory tasks for 5 weeks showed increased brain activity in the middle frontal gyrus and superior and inferior parietal cortices. These changes could be evidence of training-induced plasticity in the neural systems that underlie working memory.
(2004). Increased prefrontal and parietal activity after training of working memory.
Nat Neurosci. 7(1), 75 - 79.
Children who concentrate and switch attention better are more likely to cross streets safely
How can we help kids cross streets more safely? Improving their abilities to concentrate and switch their attention may be part of the answer. British psychologists studied these two central attentional skills in children ages four to 10 in relation to how safely they crossed the street. The results suggest that children who can concentrate and switch their attention better may cross more safely. The study used a computer game to gauge the “attention switching” skills of 101 children. Distractability and impulsivity were also measured, in a representative sample of 35 children. These 35 children were then covertly videotaped crossing streets (with their parents). Attentional skills significantly correlated with pedestrian behavior, in different ways. Children who were better at switching attention on the Frog Game were more likely to look at traffic when about to cross a road. Children who were less able to concentrate in the lab when challenged by a distraction also tended to be more impulsive; children rated as more impulsive tended to cross the road in a less controlled way. The biggest improvements seemed to come between the group of four-five year olds and the group of five-six year olds, the difference between preschool and kindergarten age. Finally, concentration, but not switching, correlated with impulsivity, suggesting that these two skills (concentration and attention switching) represent distinct aspects of attention.
(2001). Children's attentional skills and road behavior.
Journal of Experimental Psychology. Applied. 7(3), 227 - 234.
Skill-specific exercises better for people who suffer from attention problems following stroke or brain injury
Treatment programs for people who suffer from attention problems following a stroke or other traumatic brain injuries often involve abstract cognitive exercises designed to directly restore impaired attention processes. But a review of 30 studies involving a total of 359 participants shows that an alternative and lesser-used therapy that teaches patients to relearn the tasks that affect their daily lives the most may be more effective. In this specific skills approach, people with brain damage learn to perform attention skills in a way that is different from non-brain-damaged people. In one study, for example, participants whose brain injuries affected their ability to drive a car used small electric cars in the lab to practice specific driving exercises, such as steering between pylons that were moved closer and closer together. Those that practiced specific exercises showed substantial improvement on a variety of driving related tasks compared to those who drove the car, but did not practice the exercises.
(2001). Effectiveness of attention rehabilitation after an acquired brain injury: A meta-analysis..
Neuropsychology. 15(2), 199 - 210.