New research unveils how to enhance human brain power

We depend on our memory on a day-to-day basis; whether it is for school setting, professional setting and daily tasks. It refers to our ability to acquire new information and adapt our responses accordingly, over brief periods of time.

Working memory is a vital of the human learning process and it has been linked to numeracy and literacy abilities. Working memory is a system for temporarily storing and managing the information required to carry out complex cognitive tasks such as learning, reasoning, and comprehension. Working memory is involved in the selection, initiation, and termination of information-processing functions such as encoding, storing, and retrieving data. We use our working memory on a daily basis for a number of tasks. When we try to memorize a telephone number before writing it down or when we are occupied in a conversation: we need to recall what was just said, process it and respond. This is why its alteration can be seen in dysexecutive syndromes and many learning disorders like ADHD and dyslexia. Many individuals are consuming pills like Adderall to overcome disorders like ADHD.

Scientists for many years have been investigating whether there are ways to improve working memory. Most recently researchers from John Hopkins University in Baltimore have used a new methodology to test the effectiveness of different brain-training methods. For the first time they have they discovered an exercise that can significantly enhance working memory. The lead researcher, Dr. Kara J. Blacker says, “People say cognitive training either works or doesn’t work. We showed that it matters what kind of training you’re doing. This one task seems to show the most consistent results and the most impact on performance and should be the one we focus on if we’re interested in improving cognition through training.” 

Brain training through memory tasks

Dr. Blacker and her team of researchers hypothesized that previous studies may not have focused on the most effective brain-training tasks when attempting to address the question; can some of our cognitive abilities be improved?

Therefore, in their research, the scientists analyzed two main types of brain-training activity. Furthermore they measured the participants; brain activity both prior and after they had engaged in these exercised using electroencephalograms (EEG).

The research team gathered 136 young adults, of whom 44 were male. The participants were split into three groups. All the participants were subjected to the same tests at the beginning in order to determine working memory abilities, intelligence levels and attention.

Two types of brain-training exercises were conducted for this study, first “dual and back” and secondly “complex span.”

Dual and back training involves receiving visuospatial and auditory information simultaneously. In this case, as explained in the research, “participants saw a blue square on a gray background in one of eight spatial locations on a computer screen and at the same time heard one of eight letter sounds.”

This information was constantly updated, as participants were requested to recall sequences that they were exposed to in minute intervals, and increased minutes as the difficulty of the task increased.

In the complex span brain-training exercise, the participant’s task was to recall the order and locations of red squares, which were presented in a 4 x 4 grid format. However this exercise did not require constant updating of storing information that was just received.

As the groups were split into three, the participants had to do the dual and back task, the complex span task and control task. The participants were involved with these tasks for a month, which spread across 5 days per week for 30 minutes each session.

Results

After the final EEG scans, the researchers discovered that the working memory of subjects that had participated in the dual and back exercise had improved by 30 percent – which is nearly twice as much as the improvement presented in participants compared to the ones that were assigned the complex span exercise.

The very same participants also displayed great improvements in the activity of the prefrontal cortex, which is a brain region associated with memory and attention. This brain region has been implicated in planning complex cognitive behaviour, personality expression, decision-making, and moderating social behaviour. The basic activity of this brain region is considered to be orchestration of thoughts and actions in accordance with internal goals.

Co-researcher, Professor Susan Courtney says, “The findings suggest that this particular task is changing something about the brain. There’s something about sequencing and updating that really taps into the things that only the pre-frontal cortex can do, the real-world problem-solving tasks.”

After concluding the research, the scientists became fascinated in understanding what makes this particular task an effective exercise for enhancing working memory. They want to adapt this exercise to make it more consumer-oriented and marketable in a clinical setting.

Professor Susan Courtney concluded, “The biggest lesson here was that — yes — intensive training strengthens cognition and the brain, but we still don’t understand why and how. We can’t just jump onto a video game and expect that’s going to cure all of our cognitive problems. We need more targeted interventions.”

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