Brain training works for practiced task only

New York, Jan 3: Online exercises, games, software, even apps can train your brain to perform a particular task in a better way and may not train it to do a variety of tasks as thought earlier.

Brain training for a particular task does heighten performance but that advantage doesn’t necessarily carry over to a new challenge, claims a new study.

“With training, the brain activity became linked to specific cues that predicted when inhibitory control might be needed. This result is important because it explains how brain training improves performance on a given task – and also why the performance boost doesn’t generalise beyond that task,” said Elliot T. Berkman, professor in Department of Psychology at University of Oregon.

The three-phased study took 60 participants – 27 male, 33 females in the age group of 18-30 years. Half of the participants were in the experimental group that was trained with a task that models inhibitory control – a kind of self-control – as a race between a “go” process and a “stop” process. A faster stop process indicates more efficient inhibitory control, said the study published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

In each of a series of trials, participants were given a “go” signal — an arrow pointing left or right. Subjects pressed a key corresponding to the direction of the arrow as quickly as possible, launching the go process. However, on 25 percent of the trials, a beep sounded after the arrow appeared, signaling participants to withhold their button press, launching the stop process, the study added.

Participants practiced either the stop-signal task or a control task that didn’t affect inhibitory control every other day for three weeks. Performance improved more in the training group than in the control group.

Their neural activity was monitored using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which captures changes in blood oxygen levels, during a stop-signal task.

The fMRI results identified three regions of the brain of the trained subjects that showed changes during the task, prompting the researchers to theorise that emotional regulation may have been improved by reducing distress and frustration during the trials.

The training caused a proactive shift in inhibitory control. However, it is not clear if the improvement attained extends to other kinds of executive function such as working memory, because the team’s sole focus was on inhibitory control, said Berkman.

“This study on brain training furthers the understanding of inhibitory control and may lead to the design of better prevention tools to promote mental health,” said Kimberly Andrews Espy, vice president for research and innovation and dean of the University of Oregon’s Graduate School.