training

Why it’s better to mix up your practice

August, 2010

New research confirms that it’s better to practice more than one skill at a time than to engage in repetitive drills of the same action, and reveals that different brain regions are involved in these two scenarios.

A new study explains why variable practice improves your memory of most skills better than practice focused on a single task. The study compared skill learning between those asked to practice one particular challenging arm movement, and those who practiced the movement with other related tasks in a variable practice structure. Using magnetic stimulation applied to different parts of the brain after training (which interferes with memory consolidation), it was found that interference to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, but not to the primary motor cortex, affected skill learning for those engaged in variable practice, whereas interference to the motor cortex, but not to the prefrontal cortex, affected learning in those engaged in constant practice.

These findings indicate that variable practice involves working memory (which happens in the prefrontal cortex) rather than motor memory, and that the need to re-engage with the task each time underlies the better learning produced by variable practice (which involves repeatedly switching between tasks). The experiment also helps set a time frame for this consolidation — interference four hours after training had no effect.

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Brain fitness program produces working memory improvement in older adults

August, 2010

A new study shows improvement in visual working memory in older adults following ten hours training with a commercial brain training program. The performance gains correlated with changes in brain activity.

While brain training programs can certainly improve your ability to do the task you’re practicing, there has been little evidence that this transfers to other tasks. In particular, the holy grail has been very broad transfer, through improvement in working memory. While there has been some evidence of this in pilot programs for children with ADHD, a new study is the first to show such improvement in older adults using a commercial brain training program.

A study involving 30 healthy adults aged 60 to 89 has demonstrated that ten hours of training on a computer game designed to boost visual perception improved perceptual abilities significantly, and also increased the accuracy of their visual working memory to the level of younger adults. There was a direct link between improved performance and changes in brain activity in the visual association cortex.

The computer game was one of those developed by Posit Science. Memory improvement was measured about one week after the end of training. The improvement did not, however, withstand multi-tasking, which is a particular problem for older adults. The participants, half of whom underwent the training, were college educated. The training challenged players to discriminate between two different shapes of sine waves (S-shaped patterns) moving across the screen. The memory test (which was performed before and after training) involved watching dots move across the screen, followed by a short delay and then re-testing for the memory of the exact direction the dots had moved.

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Benefits of music training on the brain

August, 2010

A comprehensive review of the recent research into the benefits of music training on learning and the brain concludes music training in schools should be strongly supported.

A review of the many recent studies into the effects of music training on the nervous system strongly suggests that the neural connections made during musical training also prime the brain for other aspects of human communication, including learning. It’s suggested that actively engaging with musical sounds not only helps the plasticity of the brain, but also helps provide a stable scaffolding of meaningful patterns. Playing an instrument primes the brain to choose what is relevant in a complex situation. Moreover, it trains the brain to make associations between complex sounds and their meaning — something that is also important in language. Music training can provide skills that enable speech to be better heard against background noise — useful not only for those with some hearing impairment (it’s a common difficulty as we get older), but also for children with learning disorders. The review concludes that music training tones the brain for auditory fitness, analogous to the way physical exercise tones the body, and that the evidence justifies serious investment in music training in schools.

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[1678] Kraus, N., & Chandrasekaran B.
(2010).  Music training for the development of auditory skills.
Nat Rev Neurosci. 11(8), 599 - 605.

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Brain training reverses age-related cognitive decline

August, 2010

A month's training in sound discrimination reversed normal age-related cognitive decline in the auditory cortex in old rats.

A rat study demonstrates how specialized brain training can reverse many aspects of normal age-related cognitive decline in targeted areas. The month-long study involved daily hour-long sessions of intense auditory training targeted at the primary auditory cortex. The rats were rewarded for picking out the oddball note in a rapid sequence of six notes (five of them of the same pitch). The difference between the oddball note and the others became progressively smaller. After the training, aged rats showed substantial reversal of their previously degraded ability to process sound. Moreover, measures of neuron health in the auditory cortex had returned to nearly youthful levels.

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Early intervention for toddlers with autism highly effective

January, 2010

A study involving autistic toddlers has found a novel early intervention program to be effective for improving IQ, language ability, and social interaction.

A five-year study involving 48 diverse, 18- to 30-month-old children with autism and no other health problems has found a novel early intervention program to be effective for improving IQ, language ability, and social interaction. The Early Start Denver Model combines applied behavioral analysis (ABA) teaching methods with play-based routines that focused on building a relationship with the child. Half the children received two two-hour sessions five days a week from specialists (but in their own homes) plus five hours a week of parent-delivered therapy. The remaining children were referred to community-based programs. After two years, the IQs of the children in the intervention group had improved by an average of around 18 points, compared to a little more than four points in the comparison group. The intervention group also had a nearly 18-point improvement in receptive language (listening and understanding) compared to around10 points in the comparison group. Seven of the children in the intervention group received an improved diagnosis from autism to the milder condition known as 'pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified' (PDD-NOS), compared to only one child in the community-based therapy group.

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Design help for children with dyslexia

January, 2010

A digital designer is developing an online toolkit to help teachers more effectively assist children with dyslexia. The tool aims to help children remember the sound connected to the letter.

A digital designer is developing a toolkit to help teachers more effectively assist children with dyslexia. The tool aims to help children remember the sound connected to the letter. For example, you can scroll over the letter "p," and the "p" will then morph to display common items associated with the "puh" sound: (peach, peppermint, pie, pea and piano). Or when moving over a long vowel, the vowel lengthens horizontally; silent letters are shadowed or repel the mouse. And so on. The toolkit has not yet been tested, but I do like the idea. You can catch a 2-minute video showing how it works.

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The project, titled "Reading by Design: Visualizing Phonemic Sound for Dyslexic Readers 9-11 Years Old," was presented at the Southwest International Reading Association Regional Conference in Oklahoma City, Okla., on Feb. 5, 2010.

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Working memory training makes mice smarter

March, 2010

A mouse study has found working memory training improved their proficiency on a wide range of cognitive tests, and helped them better retained their cognitive abilities into old age.

A study in which 60 young adult mice were trained on a series of maze exercises designed to challenge and improve their working memory ability (in terms of retaining and using current spatial information), has found that the mice improved their proficiency on a wide range of cognitive tests, and moreover better retained their cognitive abilities into old age.

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Brief meditative exercise helps cognition

April, 2010

Great news for those who crave the benefits of meditation but find the thought a bit intimidating! Adding to evidence that long-term mindfulness meditation practice promotes executive functioning and the ability to sustain attention, a small study has found cognitive benefits from as little as four sessions of 20 minutes.

Great news for those who crave the benefits of meditation but find the thought a bit intimidating! While a number of studies have demonstrated that long-term mindfulness meditation practice promotes executive functioning and the ability to sustain attention, now a small study involving 49 students has found that as little as four sessions of 20 minutes produced a significant improvement in critical cognitive skills, compared to those who spent an equal amount of time listening to Tolkien's The Hobbit being read aloud. Both groups showed similar improved levels of mood, but only the meditation group improved their cognitive scores. While this group improved on all cognitive tasks, they did dramatically better when under stressful conditions, such as provided by increasingly challenging time-constraints, and particularly in the areas of attention and vigilance. Mindfulness training, as given here, focuses on breathing, letting go one’s thoughts, releasing sensory events that distract. It should be noted that no one is suggesting four days training produces a permanent effect! But it is encouraging to think that benefits might be achieved so quickly. The training also reduced fatigue and anxiety.

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Study claims brain games don't make you smarter

April, 2010

The recent report splashed all over the press that supposedly found playing online brain games makes you no smarter than surfing the Internet demonstrated no more than we already know: that transfer beyond the specific tasks you practise is very rare, and that well-educated people who are not deprived of mental stimulation and have no health or disability problems are not the people likely to be helped by such games.

A six-week study got a lot of press last month. The study involved some 11,000 viewers of the BBC's science show "Bang Goes the Theory", and supposedly showed that playing online brain games makes you no smarter than surfing the Internet to answer general knowledge questions. In fact, the main problem was the media coverage. The researchers acknowledged that previous research has found some types of individuals benefit from such games (older adults, preschool children, and I would add, children with some learning disabilities such as ADHD), and that video gamers show improved skills in some areas. What they found was that, across this general, mostly well-educated group, the amount of training on these tasks didn't improve performance beyond those specific tasks. This is neither a surprise, nor news. I'll talk more about this in the newsletter coming out early next month.

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