A new study found evidence that ‘brain training’ changed brain signalling but no indication of other benefits.
The research team tested whether it is possible to improve memory skills in childhood with training. The study published by Dr Duncan Astle in the Journal of Neuroscience had children playing games that taxed their short-term memory. For half the children, the games got gradually harder, forcing the children to expand their memory capacity. The other half of the children were assigned to a control group in which the ‘difficulty level’ of the games were set to easy.
After intensive training, children’s memory capacity substantially improved, relative to the control group. Importantly, these children also got significantly better at untrained memory exercises showing that their intensive training generalised.
The researchers used magnetoencephalography, to scan the brains of thirty-three children aged between eight and eleven whilst they performed a memory task. The team developed a technique for exploring electrical circuits using these brain scans, and found that after intensive training specific brain connections involved in memory and attention were changed.
Certain brain structures in the frontal and parietal lobe provided a rhythmic electrical signal, and this synchronised the activity in other parts of the brain, particularly in the areas responsible for visual processing. In some ways these frontal and parietal brain areas acted like a pacemaker, providing a beat that coordinated the activity of other brain regions. After intensive training this rhythm played a stronger role in influencing the other brain areas – i.e. the pacemaker was more effective.
“These brain areas are thought to play an important role in controlling and optimising the activity of other brain systems. We were able to show that they do this using a rhythm at a particular frequency. This rhythm alters the excitability of neurons in other brain areas, and this is how it coordinates them. After intensive training this coupling was boosted – the rhythm’s influence was enhanced,” commented Dr Astle.
“Despite the bold claims, evidence of the wider benefits of brain training is weak at best, and our understanding about what it actually does is frustratingly vague. This study is really the first of its kind and provides a big step forwards in our understanding of how training can alter the functioning of brain networks. By better understanding the science behind brain training we hope one day to be able to harness its practical benefits.”