Cognitive training makes the brain work faster and more efficiently, research at the Center for Brain Health at The University of Texas at Dallas claimed.
The findings of this research provide new hope for extending our brain function as we age, as relentless cognitive decline is widely thought to be an unavoidable negative aspect of normal aging.
In a randomized clinical study involving adults age 56 to 71, the research team found that after cognitive training, participants' brains were more energy efficient, meaning their brain did not have to work as hard to perform a task.
To investigate changes in brain efficiency, the research team studied neural activity while the participant performed a task. For the study, 57 cognitively normal older adults were randomly assigned to a cognitive training group, a wait-listed control group, or physical exercise control group. The cognitive training utilized the Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART) program developed at the Center for Brain Health.
Cognitive training strategies included how to focus on the most relevant information and filter out the less relevant; ways to continually synthesize information encountered in daily life to encourage deeper thinking; and how to inspire innovative thinking through generating diverse interpretations, solutions and perspectives. Because aerobic exercise has been shown to lead to improvements in processing speed and functional changes within the frontal and other brain regions, it was included as one of the study groups.
The cognitive training was conducted over the course of 12 weeks. Participants in the active control physical exercise program exceeded physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes per week for the 12 weeks.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), an imaging technique that measures brain activity, researchers examined all three groups at the beginning (baseline), middle, and end of the study while participants performed computer-based speed tasks in the scanner.
The fMRI results provided evidence that cognitive training improved speed-related neural activity. While all groups showed faster reaction times across sessions, the cognitive training group showed a significant increase in the association between reaction time and frontal lobe activity. After training, faster reaction times were associated with lower frontal lobe activity, which is consistent with the more energy-efficient neural activity found in younger adults.
In contrast to the cognitive training group, the wait-listed and physical exercise groups showed significant decreases across sessions in the association between reaction time and frontal lobe activation.
"This discovery of neural efficiency profiles found in the SMART-trained older adults is promising," said Dr. Sandra Bond Chapman, one of the lead authors, Center for Brain Health founder and chief director. "If replicated, this work paves the way for larger clinical trials to test the ability to harness the potential of the aging mind and its ability to excel - by working like a younger brain with all the rich knowledge and expertise accrued over time. To counteract the pattern of age-related losses and even enhance the brain's inner workings by 'thinking' in smarter ways is an achievable and highly desirable goal."