Brain training works, but just for the practiced task, say researchers

January 2, 2014, University of Oregon
Brain training works, but just for the practiced task, say Oregon researchers
Changes resulting from training are highlighted in the brain's right frontal gyrus (yellow), based on an fMRI study of subjects in experiments at the University of Oregon. Pre-task training was found to work just for the challenge at hand. Credit: Elliot Berkman

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 . 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 became linked to specific cues that predicted when inhibitory control might be needed," he said. "This result is important because it explains how 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 (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.

Neural activity was monitored using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which captures changes in blood oxygen levels, during a stop-signal task. MRI work was done in the UO's Robert and Beverly Lewis Center for Neuroimaging. Activity in the and anterior cingulate cortex—brain regions that regulate inhibitory control—decreased during inhibitory control but increased immediately before it in the training group more than in the control group.

The fMRI results identified three regions of the brain of the trained subjects that showed changes during the task, prompting the researchers to theorize that emotional regulation may have been improved by reducing distress and frustration during the trials. Overall, the size of the training effect is small. A challenge for future research, they concluded, will be to identify protocols that might generate greater positive and lasting effects.

"Researchers at the University of Oregon are using tools and technologies to shed new light on important mechanisms of cognitive functioning such as executive control," said Kimberly Andrews Espy, vice president for research and innovation and dean of the UO Graduate School. "This revealing study on brain training by Dr. Berkman and his team furthers our understanding of inhibitory control and may lead to the design of better prevention tools to promote mental health."

Co-authors with Berkman were Lauren E. Kahn and Junaid S. Merchant, doctoral students in psychology. Internal UO faculty research awards supported the project.

The findings are in line with a growing body of studies that are exploring the impact of brain-training programs. Recent research has been covered by various media outlets, including The Observer (UK), the Motley Fool and ABC News.

Explore further: Learning to control brain activity improves visual sensitivity

More information: Journal of Neuroscience, 1 January 2014, 34(1): 149-157; DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3564-13.2014

Related Stories

Learning to control brain activity improves visual sensitivity

December 4, 2012
Training human volunteers to control their own brain activity in precise areas of the brain can enhance fundamental aspects of their visual sensitivity, according to a new study. This non-invasive 'neurofeedback' approach ...

Cortical cause of anxiety states

December 2, 2013
Fear, at the right level, can increase alertness and protect against dangers. Disproportionate fear, on the other hand, can disrupt the sensory perception, be disabling, reduce happiness and therefore become a danger in itself. ...

Mindfulness meditation IBMT trims craving for tobacco

August 5, 2013
Addiction to smoking and other substances involves a particular set of brain areas related to self-control, according to numerous research. For a new study, researchers wondered if a training approach designed to influence ...

You want fries with that? Don't go there

November 11, 2013
A new Dartmouth neuroimaging study suggests chronic dieters overeat when the regions of their brain that balance impulsive behavior and self-control become disrupted, decreasing their capacity to resist temptation.

Real-time brain feedback can help people overcome anxiety

May 9, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—People provided with a real-time readout of activity in specific regions of their brains can learn to control that activity and lessen their anxiety, according to new findings published online in the journal ...

Brain training increases dopamine release

August 5, 2011
It is known that training can improve working memory. In a new study in Science, researchers from Karolinska Institutet, Umeå University, Åbo Akademi University, and the University of Turku show for the first time ...

Recommended for you

New neurons in the adult brain are involved in sensory learning

February 23, 2018
Although we have known for several years that the adult brain can produce new neurons, many questions about the properties conferred by these adult-born neurons were left unanswered. What advantages could they offer that ...

Do you see what I see? Researchers harness brain waves to reconstruct images of what we perceive

February 22, 2018
A new technique developed by neuroscientists at the University of Toronto Scarborough can, for the first time, reconstruct images of what people perceive based on their brain activity gathered by EEG.

Neuroscientists discover a brain signal that indicates whether speech has been understood

February 22, 2018
Neuroscientists from Trinity College Dublin and the University of Rochester have identified a specific brain signal associated with the conversion of speech into understanding. The signal is present when the listener has ...

Study in mice suggests personalized stem cell treatment may offer relief for multiple sclerosis

February 22, 2018
Scientists have shown in mice that skin cells re-programmed into brain stem cells, transplanted into the central nervous system, help reduce inflammation and may be able to help repair damage caused by multiple sclerosis ...

Nolan film 'Memento' reveals how the brain remembers and interprets events from clues

February 22, 2018
Key repeating moments in the film give viewers the information they need to understand the storyline. The scenes cause identical reactions in the viewer's brain. The results deepen our understanding of how the brain functions, ...

Biomarker, clues to possible therapy found in novel childhood neurogenetic disease

February 22, 2018
Researchers studying a rare genetic disorder that causes severe, progressive neurological problems in childhood have discovered insights into biological mechanisms that drive the disease, along with early clues that an amino ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (2) Jan 02, 2014
If you look broadly at education, you will see all sorts of instances where the thoughts we teach students to have are not actually reflective of the goals society wishes to accomplish. The physics PhD program, for instance, relies very heavily upon memorization of problem sets. Not even our laboratory exercises imitate the real world thought patterns of actual scientists, insofar as most involve students following a recipe.

Physics education researchers have been trying to point to the importance of assimilation for a couple of decades now. Assimilation is the process of creating connections -- sometimes modifications of -- with the students preconceptions. For a system of knowledge like Newtonian physics, this occurs at the level of concepts, propositions and models.

But, look at the way we teach students today: It's still largely based upon problem sets. This leads to very predictable problems in how people think about science, for reasons similar to this article.
not rated yet Jan 02, 2014
i wonder if this is true of the dual n-back. it is said to be the only exercise that is proven to increase fluid intelligence. i have not read about it for years so it may be disproved now.
not rated yet Jan 02, 2014
The brain will make new connections and perform efficiently at a repetitive task. The brain also tries to figure out unfamiliar problems. It can be said that intelligence is the ability to solve unfamiliar problems quickly. Will constantly trying to solve unfamiliar problems lead to an increase in intelligence, or simply increase the number of tasks the brain is familiar with?
not rated yet Jan 02, 2014
I sense this study suffers from serious limitations. Being a master of chess won't qualify you to win at Wimbledon - but is that a surprise? A tennis champion probably excels at physical tasks while a chess champion probably has superior memory and focus. Any surprises there?

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.