Wisdom may come with age, but so too does an inexorable decline in cognitive abilities. Whether it is speed of processing, working or long-term memory, it all starts to go downhill as people move into their 30s, and continues as they enter their 40s and beyond (click on the figure for the details). What to do? Some people do crossword puzzles.Mostly they just worry. A few sign up for one of the many brain fitness software suites out there, but do they really work? The answer has mostly been maybe. Until now.
Before getting to the breakthrough, let’s briefly see what the state of affairs were last week. Many studies have shown improvements with brain training, but the gain is mainly in the game; overall, cognitive function is usually not affected. Getting better at a game is all well and good, but that is not what people are after.
One study was a clear exception. In 2008, Jaeggi et al. published a paper in PNAS which showed that one particular game – the N-back task – improved not just task performance but also fluid intelligence. This was met with a great deal of excitement, and you can find many N-back tasks on the internet. But the N-back is hard. It’s also pretty boring. I suppose that is why I have struggled with maintaining a regular practice of N-back training. While no one has disputed Jaeggi et al’s findings, the field was rocked on its heels in 2010 when Adrian Owen and his colleagues at Cambridge published a paper in Nature in which they tested 11,430 people (!!) in Britain. What they reported was that “in every one of the cognitive tasks that were trained, no evidence was found for transfer effects to untrained tasks, even when those tasks were cognitively closely related.” [Notably, the N-back task was not included in the study.] At the time I wrote that more than anything, Owen’s results were likely to spur further investigation.
And so they have. In a very thoughtfully designed set of experiments published this past week in Nature, Adam Gazzaley’s group at UCSF report that they have developed a new game called Neuroracer that not only improves the ability of older adults to multitask, but it also improves cognitive control, working memory, and attention; all of these are cognitive domains that are known to degrade in normal aging. The experiments are exceedingly carefully carried out – there is both an active control group who had a slightly different task and a no-contact control group; neither showed any benefit. [It is not clear whether the game would have a similar effect in younger adults, but you can be sure that those data, and more, are in the pipeline.] What is remarkable is the degree to which the Neuroracer was able to restore cognitive function.
I have not played the Neuroracer game myself, but I know from discussions with Adam that his objective was to solve not just the efficacy side of the equation, but also to make the game interesting. Although it was not discussed in the article, if Neuroracer satisfies this criterion as well, it represents a doubly important advance in the field.
Adam visited us in November 2011 and I had a chance to sit down to talk with him about the degradation of attention that accompanies multitasking in the modern world. The video can be found below.