Neuroscientists find it's never too late to retrain brain

November 2, 2012 by Wallace Ravven
Credit: University of California, San Francisco

(Medical Xpress)—UCSF neuroscientists have found that by training on attention tests, people young and old can improve brain performance and multitasking skills.

Anyone who tries to perform two tasks at once is likely to do worse on both. Why that is so at the neurological level has largely been terra incognita. But research now is starting to reveal the impact of multitasking on short-term memory and attention.

Adam Gazzaley, MD, PhD, associate professor of neurology, physiology and psychiatry, and researchers at the UCSF Neuroscience Imaging Center use , MRI and other non-invasive tools to study while people try their best on drills that test short-term memory.

In one early study, images of either faces or natural scenes pop up on a computer screen in random order, each for about a second. Participants are instructed to focus on one type of image—their target image—and ignore the other type. Soon afterward, they are shown either a face or a scene and asked to press a button if this is their target image.

The task challenges participants' and memory in the face of distractions and multitasking. The "wrong" image is essentially a visual distraction from the task at hand.

The studies have revealed specific brain processing abilities that decline with age and compromise short-term, or "working" memory—a capacity that underlies performance on a range of .

About one-third of seniors do as well as the average 20-year-old, Gazzaley found. But most perform considerably less well. Many researchers have hypothesized what brain functions account for the differences. Gazzaley's lab has sorted through the possible explanations using the brain imaging measurements.

Changes in to different show that, compared to younger people, the in most older people get stuck on the wrong images. This, Gazzaley said, overburdens short-term memory and explains poorer performance.

"Older people tend to 'overprocess' distracting stimuli, and they are also slower to recover their focus after an interruption when multitasking," he said. "There seems to be a stickiness in their brain's ability to switch back to the main task."

He calls this a deficit in "top-down modulation"—the ability of the conscious part of the brain to direct the visual part to return to duty. It's the stickiness that interferes with .

Gazzaley's UCSF lab and others have found that by training on attention tests, people young and old can improve their brain performance and multitasking skills. His research shows that the benefits may spread to other crucial brain functions such as sustained attention.

Commercial "brain training" games have been on the market for more than a decade. Most rely on evidence that the drills work, at least for short-term improvement in . But they don't draw on the kinds of brain studies carried out in the UCSF lab. Recently, Gazzaley applied his brain physiology studies to the real world of video games. He worked with professional video game developers at a start-up company called Akili Interactive Labs to create an engaging game that draws on his lab's research.

Gazzaley developed the predecessor to the soon-to-be-released commercial game, "Neuroracer." In his prototype, players have to detect a target sign while driving a virtual car in a 3-D environment. The game can be used both for diagnosis and training. On the diagnostic side, preliminary results suggest that multitasking skills don't just crash at a certain age, but may actually decline at a steady rate starting early in adulthood. The training results also show that older adults can dramatically improve their ability to multitask.

In 2011, Gazzaley filed a patent with UCSF that covers the use of the games for both diagnosis and training brain performance in the domains of distraction and multitasking.

Gazzaley's findings have caught the attention of colleagues who work with autistic and seriously depressed patients. Some clinicians think that engaging patients in these games can improve their ability to concentrate.

"We've gone from lab-based studies of how the changes with age to demonstrations of novel approaches that can improve information processing and performance in older adults," said Gazzaley. "If the new video games we are developing are engaging and fun enough for people to play often, then healthy adults may show significant benefits and so might individuals with cognitive disorders. That would be a very powerful outcome."

Explore further: New study on multitasking reveals switching glitch in aging brain

Related Stories

New study on multitasking reveals switching glitch in aging brain

April 11, 2011
Scientists at the University of California, San Francisco have pinpointed a reason older adults have a harder time multitasking than younger adults: they have more difficulty switching between tasks at the level of brain ...

Retraining the brain -- All is not lost, despite aging, injuries, or mental illness

November 18, 2011
(Medical Xpress) -- Our mature brains may not be so old and inflexible after all. Scientists are discovering that the human brain can improve its performance to counter the consequences of cognitive impairment and even the ...

Recommended for you

Can brain lesions contribute to criminal behavior?

December 18, 2017
New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that lesions to brain areas in individuals exhibiting criminal behavior all fall within a particular brain network involved in moral ...

Direct amygdala stimulation can enhance human memory

December 18, 2017
Direct electrical stimulation of the human amygdala, a region of the brain known to regulate memory and emotional behaviors, can enhance next-day recognition of images when applied immediately after the images are viewed, ...

How electroconvulsive therapy relieves depression per animal experiments

December 18, 2017
In a study using genetically engineered mice, Johns Hopkins researchers have uncovered some new molecular details that appear to explain how electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) rapidly relieves severe depression in mammals, presumably ...

'Simple, but powerful' model reveals mechanisms behind neuron development

December 18, 2017
All things must come to an end. This is particularly true for neurons, especially the extensions called axons that transmit electrochemical signals to other nerve cells. Without controlled termination of individual neuron ...

Restless leg syndrome risk factor for heart-related death

December 18, 2017
Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD)-related death among women, according to research published online today (Dec. 15) in the January 2018 issue of Neurology, the medical ...

Study finds graspable objects grab attention more than images of objects do

December 15, 2017
Does having the potential to act upon an object have a unique influence on behavior and brain responses to the object? That is the question Jacqueline Snow, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno, ...

3 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

PleonasticAxiom
3 / 5 (2) Nov 02, 2012
This article is confusing. We know it's never too late to retrain brain. We got the hint back when we realized IQ testing is only accurate for that day, that you can indeed get smarter and dumber. Yet we still use IQ testing to this day, for propaganda to show that X makes you dumber. No, sorry, intelligence does not work that way. What this article shows me is that the psychology community is still blind to the obvious; But that can't really be helped, since in order to work in that field you have to think a certain way, test a certain way, and learn a certain way.
Sinister1811
2 / 5 (3) Nov 02, 2012
I believe this method of training is called "neurofeedback", although it doesn't really say in the article. But, still, this is pretty interesting, to say the least.
alfie_null
3 / 5 (1) Nov 03, 2012
About one-third of seniors do as well as the average 20-year-old, Gazzaley found. But most perform considerably less well.

It would be helpful to better understand this observation. Is it predisposition or something to do with the environment? Other than playing video games, what can we be doing to affect this decline?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.