A team of researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore has found that a method of brain training that is often used in scientific studies can help improve our working memory.
The working memory is the one we use in everyday life, especially at school or in the workplace, and refers to our ability to obtain new information and adapt our responses accordingly, for short periods of time. It is key in the learning process, hence it is not surprising, that scientists have been investigating whether there are “recipes for success” when it comes to improving working memory.
So far, scientific studies have not conclusively identified an effective method of brain training to increase cognitive abilities. However, scientists at Johns Hopkins University have used a new approach to test the effectiveness of different methods of brain training. And they have discovered, for the first time that a concrete exercise can significantly improve working memory.
“People say that cognitive training sometimes works and others do not. We show that it matters what kind of training you are doing. This task seems to show the most consistent results and the greatest impact on performance and should be where we should focus on if we are interested in improving cognition through training, “explains Kara J. Blacker, leader of the work.
Brain training through memory tasks
Experts hypothesized that previous studies may not have focused on the most effective brain-training tasks when attempting to address the question, “Can we improve some of our cognitive abilities?” Therefore, they compared two main types of cognitive training activity and measured the participants’ brain activity before and after participating in these exercises, using electroencephalograms (EEG).
The team recruited 136 young adults (44 of them men), who were divided into three groups. All of them underwent the same tests at the baseline, in order to determine the capacities of working memory, attention and intelligence levels.
In this study two types of brain training exercises were addressed: “dual n-back” and “span complex”. Dual N-Back: unite 2 simultaneous tasks and get the brain to remember the two; we can reduce the tasks and use only one, or increase them and work with 3; that is, it involves receiving visuospatial and auditory information simultaneously. In Span-Complex, “the participant’s task was to remember the order and locations of red squares presented in a 4 x 4 grid.” This exercise does not require constant updating of the information received as in the previous exercise.
Divided into three groups, participants had to do the Dual N-Back task, the complex expansion task or a control task for one month, spread over 5 days per week for 30 minutes per session.
After the final electroencephalography scans, the scientists found that the working memory of the participants who had participated in the Dual N-back test had improved their working memory by 30%, which is almost double the improvement shown in the participants who had been assigned the second type of brain training.
The same participants also showed changes in the activity of the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain highly involved in attention and memory.
“The findings suggest that this particular task [dual n-back] is changing something in the brain. There is something about the sequence and updating really involved in things that only the prefrontal cortex can do solving real – world problems, “says Susan Courtney, co – author of the study.
The experts would like to adapt this exercise to orient to the consumer or even to distribute it commercially in a clinical context.
“The biggest lesson here was that yes, intensive training strengthens cognition and brain, but we still do not understand why and how. We cannot just jump into a video game and hope that that will cure all our cognitive problems. We need more specific interventions, “says Courtney.