Researchers put brain training to the test

September 6, 2016, University of Queensland
Researchers put brain training to the test
Brain training. Credit: University of Queensland

Researchers from The University of Queensland have shown for the first time that "brain training" for specific tasks can also improve broader brain performance, in findings with major implications for ageing brains.

The team from the Queensland Brain Institute  and UQ's School of Psychology studied the benefits of stimulation devices that deliver transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) via electrodes on the scalp.

QBI's Professor Jason Mattingley said experiments applying tDCS to the left prefrontal cortex of the brain showed increased performance in both trained and untrained tasks.

"Our findings could help in efforts to arrest cognitive decline associated with healthy ageing, or improve cognition in people with brain disease or injury," Professor Mattingley said.

"In the past decade the so-called "brain training" revolution has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry, and there are thousands of online apps and programs that encourage people to exercise their brain to boost cognitive function.

"There's no doubt that repeatedly doing certain tasks improves performance on those tasks. It's been much more difficult to prove any broader benefits for brain function, or help with untrained tasks.

"This study is the first to show transfer of performance benefits to untrained cognitive operations with these types of tasks."

In the study, led by UQ's Dr Hannah Filmer, participants were trained in a decision-making task while they received active or sham .

The research team then used mathematical modelling to quantify any improved performance. 

Participants were later re-tested, on both the trained task and an unrelated visual search task.

"The results have shown that performance on a simple decision-making task can be reliably improved after four sessions of training combined with stimulation designed to increase activity in the left prefrontal cortex," Professor Mattingley said.

"Critically, we also found improved on an untrained task – a visual search they'd not performed before.

"What's more, these generalised benefits were still evident a fortnight later."

Professor Mattingley said the findings offered an important new direction for research into the neural basis of cognitive training.

"Although brain stimulation devices are now available commercially, we would not recommend people embark on "do-it-yourself" brain stimulation at home. There are still many unknowns with these technologies," Professor Mattingley said.

The research, published in Cerebral Cortex, was funded by the Australian Research Council. 

Explore further: Commercial brain stimulation device impairs memory

More information: Hannah L. Filmer et al. Improvements in Attention and Decision-Making Following Combined Behavioral Training and Brain Stimulation, Cerebral Cortex (2016). DOI: 10.1093/cercor/bhw189

Related Stories

Commercial brain stimulation device impairs memory

August 17, 2015
People show impaired memory after receiving low intensity electrical stimulation administered to the frontal part of the brain by a commercial, freely available, device. Psychologists Laura Steenbergen and Lorenza Colzato, ...

Similar brain connectivity during rest and tasks linked to better mental performance

August 16, 2016
A brain on task differs from a brain at rest. But, how much it differs could depend on the cognitive ability of the person whose brain is being studied. New research published August 17 in The Journal of Neuroscience suggests ...

Brain stimulation may hold key to treating anxiety

December 15, 2014
Researchers at The University of Western Australia have found that that brain stimulation may help retrain unhelpful cognitive habits associated with anxiety and depression. The paper was published today in the international ...

Neuroscientists working to test brain training claims

April 5, 2016
The draw is huge: Play video games and get smarter. For the past decade, various groups have claimed that their cognitive training programs do everything from staving off neurodegenerative disease to enhancing education and ...

Evidence of changes to children's brain rhythms following 'brain training'

August 23, 2016
New research questions the strong claims that have been made about the benefits of 'brain training' - enhanced mental skills, a boost to education, improved clinical outcomes and sharper everyday functioning. This new study ...

Brain's prefrontal lobe is major player in Parkinson's Gait

August 10, 2016
A new study by Tel Aviv University researchers demonstrates that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with cognitive functions, plays a major role in "Parkinson's Gait." It suggests a radically new understanding ...

Recommended for you

New technique helps uncover changes in ALS neurons

June 22, 2018
Northwestern Medicine scientists have discovered that some neurons affected by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) display hypo-excitability, using a new method to measure electrical activity in cells, according to a study ...

Broken shuttle may interfere with learning in major brain disorders

June 22, 2018
Unable to carry signals based on sights and sounds to the genes that record memories, a broken shuttle protein may hinder learning in patients with intellectual disability, schizophrenia, and autism.

Watching stem cells repair spinal cord in real time

June 22, 2018
Monash University researchers have restored movement and regenerated nerves using stem cells in zebra fish where the spinal cord is severely damaged.

Scientists discover fundamental rule of brain plasticity

June 21, 2018
Our brains are famously flexible, or "plastic," because neurons can do new things by forging new or stronger connections with other neurons. But if some connections strengthen, neuroscientists have reasoned, neurons must ...

Waking up is hard to do: Prefrontal cortex implicated in consciousness

June 21, 2018
Philosophers have pondered the nature of consciousness for thousands of years. In the 21st century, the debate over how the brain gives rise to our everyday experience continues to puzzle scientists. To help, researchers ...

Researchers find mechanism behind choosing alcohol over healthy rewards

June 21, 2018
A new study links molecular changes in the brain to behaviours that are central in addiction, such as choosing a drug over alternative rewards. The researchers have developed a method in which rats learn to get an alcohol ...

0 comments

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.