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Brain training may harm recognition memory

23 Dec

A study published in the journal Memory and Cognition suggests that working memory training (the kind offered by brain training software) may actually harm some kinds of memory performance. Here is the abstract:

There is a great deal of debate concerning the benefits of working memory (WM) training and whether that training can transfer to other tasks. Although a consistent finding is that WM training programs elicit a short-term near-transfer effect (i.e., improvement in WM skills), results are inconsistent when considering persistence of such improvement and far transfer effects. In this study, we compared three groups of participants: a group that received WM training, a group that received training on how to use a mental imagery memory strategy, and a control group that received no training. Although the WM training group improved on the trained task, their posttraining performance on nontrained WM tasks did not differ from that of the other two groups. In addition, although the imagery training group’s performance on a recognition memory task increased after training, the WM training group’s performance on the task decreased after training. Participants’ descriptions of the strategies they used to remember the studied items indicated that WM training may lead people to adopt memory strategies that are less effective for other types of memory tasks. These results indicate that WM training may have unintended consequences for other types of memory performance.

I am intrigued by the finding that the mental imagery memory strategy had positive effects. Unfortunately, my university library has a one year delay before making full text articles from this journal available. Thus, I don’t have any description of the mental imagery memory strategy. Nor am I able to judge the quality of the study.

Regular readers will know that I am skeptical of the benefits of brain training software. But until now, there was no evidence to suggest any harm from this approach. For the time being, we should wait until we have all the evidence and the findings have been replicated.

Brain training increases grey matter volume

15 Aug

On Friday, I reported on a meta-analysis that presented evidence that working memory brain training does not transfer to other cognitive skills. The most recent issue of Personality and Individual Differences carries a paper titled:  “Gray matter volumetric changes with a challenging adaptive cognitive training program based on the dual n-back task.” The n-back task is the most widely used procedure for working memory training in academic research.

Surprisingly, these results do not, necessarily, contradict each other. As noted in the abstract:

“Changes in the gray matter volume of these clusters were correlated with a) behavioral changes across the training program and b) changes in four psychological factors assessed before and after training (fluid and crystallized intelligence, working memory capacity, and attention control). None of these correlations were statistically significant, and therefore, psychological and biological changes were seen as independent.”

Since there working memory training does improve performance on the trained task, we would expect there to be some kind of measurable physical change in the brain. But this does not mean that the training effects are transferable to other cognitive domains.

Yoga may reduce mild cognitive impairment

27 Jul

Let me state my biases right upfront, I am a yoga practitioner, so I may have a tendency to be less critical of yoga positive research. With that in mind, let me report on this study published in The Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease: “Changes in Neural Connectivity and Memory Following a Yoga Intervention for Older Adults: A Pilot Study.” Here is the abstract:

BACKGROUND:
No study has explored the effect of yoga on cognitive decline and resting-state functional connectivity.

OBJECTIVES:
This study explored the relationship between performance on memory tests and resting-state functional connectivity before and after a yoga intervention versus active control for subjects with mild cognitive impairment (MCI).

METHODS:
Participants ( ≥ 55 y) with MCI were randomized to receive a yoga intervention or active “gold-standard” control (i.e., memory enhancement training (MET)) for 12 weeks. Resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging was used to map correlations between brain networks and memory performance changes over time. Default mode networks (DMN), language and superior parietal networks were chosen as networks of interest to analyze the association with changes in verbal and visuospatial memory performance.

RESULTS:
Fourteen yoga and 11 MET participants completed the study. The yoga group demonstrated a statistically significant improvement in depression and visuospatial memory. We observed improved verbal memory performance correlated with increased connectivity between the DMN and frontal medial cortex, pregenual anterior cingulate cortex, right middle frontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, and left lateral occipital cortex. Improved verbal memory performance positively correlated with increased connectivity between the language processing network and the left inferior frontal gyrus. Improved visuospatial memory performance correlated inversely with connectivity between the superior parietal network and the medial parietal cortex.

CONCLUSION:
Yoga may be as effective as MET in improving functional connectivity in relation to verbal memory performance. These findings should be confirmed in larger prospective studies.

Interesting, but I do have a few concerns. The improvement in depression for the yoga group was statistically significant but the effect size was small:

the yoga group improved significantly in depression (GDS) and in visuospatial memory (Rey-O delayed recall). The clinical improvement in GDS for the yoga group was only minimal (baseline 7.5 (5.1) and follow up 3.9 (2.5); p = 0.01).

If you look at the table you will see that the control group also experience a reduction in depression, the fact that it did not achieve significant is likely an artifact of the study’s small sample size. Moreover, the yoga group started out with much higher depression scores suggesting that the groups might not have been comparable.

Here is the authors’ descriptions of the study’s limitations:

The sample size was only powered towards rs-fMRI findings, and exploring relationships between memory and functional connectivity, not exploring multi-domain effects on cognition. Additionally, we do not have long-term follow-up, which means we are unable to explore cognitive decline towards dementia. Also, it is possible that the enhanced cognitive benefits and connectivity changes resulting from the KK yogic intervention were due to the 60 min of instruction per week, the 12 min per day of Kirtan kriya meditation (shown to positively affect blood flow in the brain [34]), or a combination of these factors. However, as previous studies only using KK meditation found activation patterns that are in-line with those from the present research, it is unlikely that the weekly classes presented a large deviation. Nevertheless, this is a fruitful area for future research studies, which may aim to parse out the effects of these various activities, or perhaps determine that for optimal benefits weekly classes in addition to a daily meditative practice is recommended.

 

Is brain training a placebo?

25 Jul

The word “placebo” comes from the Latin and means  “I shall please.” A recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that claims about the benefits of brain training may simply be placebo effects:

“Placebo effects pose problems for some intervention studies, particularly those with no clearly identified mechanism. Cognitive training falls into that category, and yet the role of placebos in cognitive interventions has not yet been critically evaluated. Here, we show clear evidence of placebo effects after a brief cognitive training routine that led to significant fluid intelligence gains. Our goal is to emphasize the importance of ruling out alternative explanations before attributing the effect to interventions. Based on our findings, we recommend that researchers account for placebo effects before claiming treatment effects.”

(Hat tip to Deric’s MindBlog).

 

 

Age related cognitive decline is real

7 Mar

While we may be able to do some things to slow cognitive decline, a recent study published in the journal Intelligence reports evidence that age related cognitive decline is real:

“Processing speed is an important human cognitive capability that might underlie differences in other cognitive skills and their aging. We aimed to test aging-related processing speed differences using a novel cross-sectional design that adjusted for cognitive ability tested in youth. We examined aging differences on three different ways of assessing processing speed: psychometric, experimental, and psychophysical. We compared large narrow-age cohorts of 70- and 83-year-old people who were matched for cognitive ability in childhood. There were decrements of substantial effect size in all processing speed assessments in the older group that were not accounted for by prior cognitive ability, health, or fitness differences, though these factors also contributed to processing speed differences. These findings confirm age-related cognitive slowing using an unusual research design, and provide evidence against recent theories characterizing aging-related cognitive decline as a myth.”

Turning on the brain’s plasticity

25 Jan

An exciting article in the most recent Scientific American (unfortunately, behind a paywall) by Takao Hensch.

Hensch points to evidence that we may be able to turn on the plasticity of the young brain in later life, opening the possibility of enhanced learning and treatment for psychiatric disorders. You can take a look at his work here.

Here is Hensch speaking about critical periods in development.

Leg strength predicts better cognitive aging

30 Nov

Leg strength is a good indicator of over all health. This fact is the basis for widely used simple health assessment:

 

Now a study suggests that leg strength may also be a good measure of cognitive aging. From the abstract:

Objectives: We aimed to test whether muscle fitness (measured by leg power) could predict cognitive change in a healthy older population over a 10-year time interval, how this performed alongside other predictors of cognitive ageing, and whether this effect was confounded by factors shared by twins. In addition, we investigated whether differences in leg power were predictive of differences in brain structure and function after 12 years of follow-up in identical twin pairs. Methods: A total of 324 healthy female twins (average age at baseline 55, range 43-73) performed the Cambridge Neuropsychological Test Automated Battery (CANTAB) at two time points 10 years apart. Linear regression modelling was used to assess the relationships between baseline leg power, physical activity and subsequent cognitive change, adjusting comprehensively for baseline covariates (including heart disease, diabetes, blood pressure, fasting blood glucose, lipids, diet, body habitus, smoking and alcohol habits, reading IQ, socioeconomic status and birthweight). A discordant twin approach was used to adjust for factors shared by twins. A subset of monozygotic pairs then underwent magnetic resonance imaging. The relationship between muscle fitness and brain structure and function was assessed using linear regression modelling and paired t tests. Results: A striking protective relationship was found between muscle fitness (leg power) and both 10-year cognitive change [fully adjusted model standardised β-coefficient (Stdβ) = 0.174, p = 0.002] and subsequent total grey matter (Stdβ = 0.362, p = 0.005). These effects were robust in discordant twin analyses, where within-pair difference in physical fitness was also predictive of within-pair difference in lateral ventricle size. There was a weak independent effect of self-reported physical activity. Conclusion: Leg power predicts both cognitive ageing and global brain structure, despite controlling for common genetics and early life environment shared by twins. Interventions targeted to improve leg power in the long term may help reach a universal goal of healthy cognitive ageing.

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