Cognitive enhancement without drugs

Zen circleCognitive enhancement seems to get more press with each passing day.  Much of the hysteria discussion seems to involve concerns about the rising tide of the use of existing drugs such as methylphenidate for enhancement rather than therapeutic purposes; it is worth recalling that the data suggests that methylphenidate has both helpful and detrimental effects of cognitive performance. The dirty secret in the field of cognitive enhancement is that the current crop of drugs are hardly as effective as the press makes them out to be.  There is much optimism (but no guarantee) that new drugs based on solid science may turn out to be more effective; a study in this week’s Nature suggests that blocking the activity of a specific isoform of phosphodiesterase, PDE4A5, might be a fruitful avenue for ameliorating the cognitive effects of sleep deprivation.

Against this background of pharmaco-enthusiasm, the past few years have witnessed substantial advances in behavioural strategies to enhance cognition.  For one thing, there have been a raft of studies using ‘brain-fitness software’ (essentially, computer games) to improve cognitive function.  Although many of them merely improve performance on the specific strategies employed in the task, at least some show effects that generalize quite nicely [You can watch a You Tube video (also, an advertisement) about the Impact Study here.  Here at the Core blog, we don’t endorse products so the reader should be forewarned that while the study was published in a peer-reviewed journal, the program is owned and sold by Posit Science, a (reputable) commercial outfit that paid for the study].

In addition to drugs and computer games, meditation has long been suspected to be an effective means of enhancing cognition, or at least certain features of cognitive function.  A new study from Richard Davidson’s group at the Univ. of Wisconsin demonstrates that three months of intensive meditation practice can improve the ability to sustain attention in several well-defined tasks. Here is the abstract:

The capacity to stabilize the content of attention over time varies among individuals, and its impairment is a hallmark of several mental illnesses. Impairments in sustained attention in patients with attention disorders have been associated with increased trial-to-trial variability in reaction time and event-related potential deficits during attention tasks. At present, it is unclear whether the ability to sustain attention and its underlying brain circuitry are transformable through training. Here, we show, with dichotic listening task performance and electroencephalography, that training attention, as cultivated by meditation, can improve the ability to sustain attention. Three months of intensive meditation training reduced variability in attentional processing of target tones, as indicated by both enhanced theta-band phase consistency of oscillatory neural responses over anterior brain areas and reduced reaction time variability. Furthermore, those individuals who showed the greatest increase in neural response consistency showed the largest decrease in behavioral response variability. Notably, we also observed reduced variability in neural processing, in particular in low-frequency bands, regardless of whether the deviant tone was attended or unattended. Focused attention meditation may thus affect both distracter and target processing, perhaps by enhancing entrainment of neuronal oscillations to sensory input rhythms, a mechanism important for controlling the content of attention. These novel findings highlight the mechanisms underlying focused attention meditation and support the notion that mental training can significantly affect attention and brain function.

The authors are careful not to over-interpret their findings; the paper is important insofar as it demonstrates that behavioural training can substantially improve critical cognitive functions. It turns out that one of the main problems in cognitive aging is not so much remembering things as not attending to distracting stimuli; this seems to be precisely the domain of cognitive function that intensive meditation practice improves. [The authors have not overlooked the fact that this might apply to ADHD as well.]

It is worth remembering that it is no easy task to recapitulate the experience of the study participants: they all had prior experience with meditation and were tested before and after a 3-month intensive retreat in which meditation was practiced 10-12 hours per day!!  The control group had no prior experience with meditation and were given a 1 hour introductory class and then meditated for 20 minutes per day for 1 week, probably more akin to the kind of meditative experience that most people imagine they might be able to incorporate into their daily lives.  What is unclear is whether meditation practiced for periods of time that are shorter than the intensive 3 month retreat might have beneficial effects upon cognitive performance.

Even if modest meditation practice or computer games results in cognitive enhancement, it remains to be seen whether individuals in modern society will pursue the option that requires hard work if the easy route – a magic pill – is available to them.

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One thought on “Cognitive enhancement without drugs

  1. Thanks for this interesting posting Peter. Leads me to question I find myself asking about psychoactive drugs. Presumably their action is designed to focus on neurosystems that serve specific psychological functions. Problem often seems to be that they are nonspecific in impact. The design of these systems must have evolved to enhance cognitive/behavioural adaptation (form follows function?). Is an argument in favour of nonpharmacological intervention (meditation, etc.) the prospect of being able to focus directly upon systems designed for specific functions?

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