A new brain training game designed by researchers at the University of Cambridge improves users' concentration, according to new research. The scientists behind the venture say this could provide a welcome antidote to the daily distractions that we face in a busy world. In their book, The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains In A High-Tech World, Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen point out that with the emergence of new technologies requiring rapid responses to emails and texts and working on multiple projects simultaneously, young people, including students, are having more problems with sustaining attention and frequently become distracted.
This difficulty in focusing attention and concentrating is made worse by stress from a global environment that never sleeps and also frequent travel leading to jetlag and poor quality sleep. "We've all experienced coming home from work feeling that we've been busy all day, but unsure what we actually did," says Professor Barbara Sahakian from the Department of Psychiatry. "Most of us spend our time answering emails, looking at text messages, searching social media, trying to multitask. But instead of getting a lot done, we sometimes struggle to complete even a single task and fail to achieve our goal for the day. Then we go home, and even there we find it difficult to switch off and read a book or watch TV without picking up our Smartphones. For complex tasks we need to get in the flow and stay focused."
In recent years, as Smartphones have become ubiquitous, there has been a growth in the number of so-called brain training apps that claim to improve cognitive skills such as memory, numerical skills and concentration. Now, a team from the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute at the University of Cambridge, has developed and tested Decoder, a new game that is aimed at helping users improve their attention and concentration. The game is based on the team's own research and has been evaluated scientifically.
In a study - published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioural Neuroscience - Professor Sahakian and colleague Dr. George Savulich have demonstrated that playing Decoder on an iPad for eight hours over one month improves attention and concentration. This form of attention activates a frontal-parietal network in the brain. In their study, the researchers divided 75 healthy young adults into three groups: one group received Decoder, one control group played Bingo for the same amount of time and a second control group received no game. Participants in the first two groups were invited to attend eight one-hour sessions over the course of a month during which they played either Decoder or Bingo under supervision.
All 75 participants were tested at the start of the trial and then after four weeks using the CANTAB Rapid Visual Information Processing test (RVP). CANTAB RVP has been demonstrated in previously published studies to be a highly sensitive test of attention/concentration. During the test, participants are asked to detect sequences of digits - 2-4-6, 3-5-7, 4-6-8. A white box appears in the middle of the screen, of which digits from two to nine appear in a pseudo-random order, at a rate of 100 digits per minute. Participants are instructed to press a button every time they detect a sequence. The duration of the test is approximately five minutes.
Results from the study showed a significant difference in attention as measured by the RVP. Those who played Decoder were better than those who played Bingo and those who played no game. The difference in performance was significant and meaningful as it was comparable to those effects seen using stimulants, such as methylphenidate or nicotine. The former, also known as Ritalin, is a common treatment for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
To ensure that Decoder improved focused attention and concentration without impairing the ability to shift attention, the researchers also tested participants' ability on the Trail Making Test. Decoder performance also improved on this commonly used neuropsychological test of attentional shifting. During this test, participants have to first attend to numbers and then shift their attention to letters and then shift back to numbers. Additionally, participants enjoyed playing the game, and motivation remained high throughout the eight hours of gameplay. "Many people tell me that they have trouble focusing their attention,” Sahakian said. “Decoder should help them improve their ability to do this. In addition to healthy people, we hope that the game will be beneficial for patients who have impairments in attention, including those with ADHD or traumatic brain injury. We plan to start a study with traumatic brain injury patients this year. Many brain training apps on the market are not supported by rigorous scientific evidence. Our evidence-based game is developed interactively and the games developer, Tom Piercy, ensures that it is engaging and fun to play. The level of difficulty is matched to the individual player and participants enjoy the challenge of the cognitive training."
The game has now been licensed through Cambridge Enterprise, the technology transfer arm of the University of Cambridge, to app developer Peak, who specialize in evidence-based brain training apps. This will allow Decoder to become accessible to the public. Peak has developed a version for Apple devices and has released the game as part of the Peak Brain Training app. Peak Brain Training is available from the App Store for free and Decoder will be available to both free and pro users as part of their daily workout.
The company plans to make a version available for Android devices later this year. "Peak's version of Decoder is even more challenging than our original test game, so it will allow players to continue to gain even larger benefits in performance over time," Sahakian added. "By licensing our game, we hope it can reach a wide audience who are able to benefit by improving their attention." "At Peak we believe in an evidenced-based approach to brain training,” added Xavier Louis, CEO of Peak. “This is our second collaboration with Professor Sahakian and her work over the years shows that playing games can bring significant benefits to brains. We are pleased to be able to bring Decoder to the Peak community, to help people overcome their attention problems."
Link Between Feeding And Memory
The search for a mechanism that could explain how the protein complex NCOR1/2 regulates memory has revealed an unexpected connection between the lateral hypothalamus and the hippocampus, the feeding and the memory centers of the brain, respectively. The findings - which were published in the journal Nature Neuroscience by a multidisciplinary team led by researchers at Baylor College of Medicine - have implications for studies on brain function, including those related to autism spectrum disorders, intellectual disabilities and neurodegenerative disease. "It was not known how NCOR1/2 regulates memory or other cognitive functions, but there is evidence that NCOR1/2 plays a fundamental role in the activity of many hormones," says corresponding author Dr. Zheng Sun, assistant professor of medicine and of molecular and cellular biology at Baylor and member of Baylor's Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center and Center for Precision Environmental Health and of the Texas Medical Center Digestive Diseases Center.
In this project, the researchers worked with mice carrying mutations of NCOR1/2. "These mice were clearly present with memory deficits," said co-first author Dr. Wenjun Zhou, postdoctoral associate in the Sun lab. "The signaling involving GABA, a key inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain, was dysfunctional in hypothalamus neurons when NCOR1/2 was disrupted." To explore the cellular mechanism underlying the condition, Sun collaborated with Dr. Yong Xu, associate professor of pediatrics, molecular and cellular biology and with the USDA/ARS Children's Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine.
The researchers conducted a number of electrophysiological experiments to investigate how the lack of NCOR1/2 resulted in memory deficits in mice. "What struck us the most was that the process by which NCOR1/2 regulates memory involves a new circuit that links two brain regions: the lateral hypothalamus, known as a feeding center of the brain, and the hippocampus, a place that stores memory," Xu said. "It surprised us because the hypothalamus is not traditionally considered to be a major regulator of learning and memory."
The researchers validated the newly discovered circuits in different ways. "We applied both optogenetics and chemogenetics techniques," said co-first author Dr. Yanlin He, postdoctoral associate in the Xu lab. "The protein complex NCOR1/2 is key to the hypothalamus-hippocampus circuit; when we knock it out the circuit becomes dysfunctional." In addition, the researchers have connected their findings in mouse models with human conditions. "We describe here new genetic variants of NCOR1/2 in patients with intellectual disability or neurodevelopmental defects," said co-corresponding author Dr. Pengfei Liu, assistant professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor and laboratory director of clinical research at Baylor Genetics. "The gene NCOR1 is located on human chromosome 17, very close to the region that has been previously implicated in the Potocki-Lupski and Smith-Magenis syndromes," Liu explains. "We have always suspected that mutations of this gene could cause intellectual disabilities or other deleterious neurological consequences. The mouse models in the current study provide the first evidence that this is indeed the case."
These findings have implications for the relationships among endocrine factors, obesity and metabolic disorders and cognitive dysfunctions such as Alzheimer's disease. It is known, for instance, that people with endocrine disruption or metabolic disorders are more susceptible to Alzheimer's disease. "Mechanisms underlying these associations are not completely clear," Sun said. "We think that the NCOR1/2-regulated neural circuit between the feeding and the memory centers of the brain we have discovered is worth exploring further in this context."
A Fitter Brain
Scientists have observed that more aerobically fit individuals have better memories. To investigate this phenomenon, they used magnetic resonance elastography (MRE), which measures the firmness and elasticity of organs, and found that fit individuals had a firmer, more elastic hippocampus, a region of the brain associated with memory. The method could provide early diagnosis and potential interventions in the initial stages of neurodegenerative disease. "MRE is a technique that has been used in organs like the liver, where it can assess the tissue stiffness and offers a reliable, non-invasive method for diagnosing hepatic fibrosis," says Guoying Liu, Ph.D. Director of the NIBIB program on Magnetic Resonance Imaging. "This study now demonstrates the tremendous potential for MRE to provide new quantitative biomarkers for assessing brain health as it relates to physical fitness. This is particularly significant given the rise in dementia and Alzheimer's disease occurring in the U.S. and worldwide."
The research was performed by Aron K. Barbey, Associate Professor, Departments of Psychology and Bioengineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, along with his colleagues at Illinois, and with collaborators from Northeastern University in Boston and the University of Delaware. Their results were reported in the journal NeuroImage. The work was based on well-established observations of atrophy and reduced size of the hippocampus in cognitively declining seniors and developmentally delayed children.
Given that long-known phenomenon, the researchers were puzzled by the fact that in young adults there was a correlation between fitness and memory, but the size of the hippocampus was the same in both groups. "Most of the work in this area has relied on changes in the size of the hippocampus as a measure of hippocampal health and function. However, in young adults, although we see an increase in memory in more aerobically fit individuals, we did not see differences in hippocampal size," said Barbey. "Because size is a gross measure of the structural integrity of the hippocampus, we turned to MRE, which provides a more thorough and qualitative measure of changes associated with function - in this case memory."
The investigators explained that MRE gives a better indication of the microstructure of the hippocampus - the structural integrity of the entire tissue. And it does this by basically "bouncing" the organ, very gently, and measuring how it responds. MRE is often described as being similar to a drop of water hitting a still pond to create the ripples that move out in all directions. A pillow under the subject's head generates harmless pulses, known as shear waves, that travel through the hippocampus. MRE instruments measure how the pulsed waves change as they move through the brain and those changes give an extremely accurate measure and a color-coded picture of the consistency of the tissue: soft, hard and stiff, or firm with some bounce or elasticity.
The healthy hippocampus is like a firm pillow that quickly bounces back into shape after you press your finger into it as opposed to a mushy pillow that would retain your finger mark and not rebound to its original shape. The researchers studied 51 healthy adults: 25 men and 26 women ages 18 to 35. They measured the participants' performance on a memory test as well as their aerobic fitness levels, and used MRE to measure the elasticity of the hippocampus. They found that those with higher fitness levels also had more elastic tissue in the hippocampus and scored the best on memory tests.
Given the many studies showing the association between hippocampal health and memory in seniors and children, which was based on the size of the hippocampus, the results strongly suggest that MRE is a method that reveals that there is also an association between the health of the hippocampus and memory in young adults. "MRE turned out to be a fantastic tool that enabled us to demonstrate the importance of the hippocampus in healthy young adults and the positive effect of fitness,” Barbey said. “We are excited about using MRE to look at other brain structures and diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, that involve cognitive impairment. We hope to see if and how MRE might be a valuable tool for early diagnosis and treatment of a number of neurodegenerative diseases. And, of course, if these results are more widely disseminated they could certainly serve as tremendous motivation for people concerned about getting forgetful as they age, to get moving and try to stay fit."
Link Between Learning And Cognitive Cross-Training
Just as athletes cross-train to improve physical skills, those wanting to enhance cognitive skills can benefit from multiple ways of exercising the brain, according to a comprehensive study from University of Illinois researchers – including Barbey. The 18-week study of 318 healthy young adults found that combining physical exercise and mild electric brain stimulation with computer-based cognitive training promoted skill learning significantly more than using cognitive training alone.
The enhanced learning was skill-specific and did not translate to general intelligence. The study, the largest and most comprehensive to date, was published in the journal Scientific Reports. "Learning provides the foundation for acquiring new skills and updating prior beliefs in light of new knowledge and experience," said Barbey. "Our results establish a method to enhance learning through multimodal intervention. The beneficial effects of cognitive training can be significantly enhanced with the addition of physical fitness training and noninvasive brain stimulation."
Psychologists have extensively studied and debated the merits of cognitive training, but have mainly focused on computer-based tasks. The few studies that have incorporated other training modalities, such as physical fitness training or noninvasive brain stimulation, have been small in sample size, short in time or narrow in scope. The Illinois study divided its numerous subjects into five groups: three experimental groups and active and passive control groups. One experimental group received only cognitive training; the second group received cognitive training and exercise; and the third group received cognitive training, exercise and noninvasive brain stimulation delivered by electrodes on the scalp.
The active control group completed different computer-based cognitive training tasks than the experimental group, but did the same number of sessions of the same amount of time as the experimental group. In the first week, participants took a pretest. In the following 16 weeks, the experimental and active groups completed 90-minute training sessions three times a week. In the final week of the study, all participants took a post-test. "Physical activity and aerobic fitness are known to have beneficial effects on the underlying structures and functions of the brain," said Barbey. "And research has shown that specific brain stimulation protocols can enhance cognitive performance, prompting us to investigate their effects on cognitive training."
The study used six different training tasks, designed to measure specific cognitive skills such as memory, attention and task-switching. In the post-test, the groups that received cognitive training and physical fitness training or all three interventions performed significantly better than the group with cognitive training alone. The group that received all three interventions consistently performed the best, and showed substantial gains in two of the tasks over the group that received cognitive and physical fitness training but did not receive brain stimulation.
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