(SAN FRANCISCO, CA) Researchers have uncovered a neural mechanism to explain how a particular computerized exercise drives benefits in a closely-related task, and also may transfer to more-distant cognitive abilities and real-world activities. They found the exercise makes the brain operate more efficiently, by strengthening network connections and reducing the amount of local brain activity required to accomplish a task, according to a study published in the Journal of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences. The patented exercise is licensed exclusively to Posit Science, and the consumer version is available to the public as the “Double Decision” exercise on the BrainHQ online platform.
The researchers, from The Pennsylvania State University and The University of Alabama at Birmingham, used a standard neuropsychological assessment and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to evaluate the impact of the unique exercise on brain structure and operations. The exercise is known in the scientific literature, variously as “speed of processing” training, “divided attention” training, and “UFOV®” training.
In prior studies, the speed of processing training has been shown to improve performance at standard measures of cognition, and also has been shown to transfer to better performance at real-world activities, including measures of mood, confidence, balance, gait, driving, healthrelated quality of life, predicted medical expenses, and maintaining the ability to live independently.
The newly-published study randomized 34 older adults into three groups: a group that trained for a total of 10 hours (across five weeks) on the speed of processing exercise; a group that trained on the same schedule on cognitively stimulating activities targeting higher level reasoning, recall, and executive function; and a no-contact control group that simply was measured at the same time as the other two groups.
Cognitive function, brain activation, and brain connectivity were measured before and after training. Cognitive function was measured on the standard four-part UFOV® Test (which measures processing speed, divided attention, selective attention, and selective attention with discrimination). Brain activation of participants was measured as they performed a selective attention task in the fMRI scanner, and brain connectivity was measured using resting state functional neuroimaging.
The researchers found that the speed of processing group showed significant improvements in cognitive function as measured with the UFOV Test, as compared to both the cognitively stimulating activities and the no-contact control groups.
The fMRI brain activation analysis allowed the researchers to identify which parts of the brain were engaged in the selective attention task. They identified eight regions of interest. Comparing brain activation before and after training showed that the speed of processing group significantly reduced the amount of brain activation required to perform the selective attention task in six of the eight regions of interest. The cognitively stimulating activities group showed reduced activity in one region, and the no-contact control group in none. In some brain regions thought to be important for higher-order cognitive function, the speed of processing group showed bigger decreases in activation than either of the other groups.
The fMRI brain connectivity analysis indicated that the speed of processing group showed a large increase in network connectivity, while the other two groups did not show any significant change.
“The reduced activity following training reflects the need to engage fewer brain resources in the task, meaning more efficient operations related to this task,” explained Dr. Lesley Ross, lead author of the study. “We also propose that the increased connection strength at all times, even during rest, is a possible mechanism through which this training achieves transfer to everyday tasks and to maintaining cognitive abilities.”
“Most forms of cognitive training have not been shown to transfer improvements beyond the task trained,” observed Dr. Henry Mahncke, CEO of Posit Science. “By focusing on this unique training, which has repeatedly shown transfer to everyday activities, this study contributes to our understanding of why it does so. Taken together with other studies, we now know that this type of plasticity-based perceptual training drives structural changes in the brain, that help to explain why this type of training not only improves performance at the task trained but also more generalized performance in daily life.”