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Brain Training May Help Clear Cognitive Fog Caused by Chemotherapy

I’ve linked to research before casting doubt on the efficacy of “brain training” games and software (other than double n-back). But some new research reported by the MIT Technology Review is more promising:

Cancer survivors sometimes suffer from a condition known as “chemo fog”—a cognitive impairment caused by repeated chemotherapy. A study hints at a controversial idea: that brain-training software might help lift this cognitive cloud.

Various studies have concluded that cognitive training can improve brain function in both healthy people and those with medical conditions, but the broader applicability of these results remains controversial in the field.

In a study published in the journal Clinical Breast Cancer, investigators report that those who used a brain-training program for 12 weeks were more cognitively flexible, more verbally fluent, and faster-thinking than survivors who did not train. [...]

“This is a well-done study—they had not just one transfer test but several,” says Hambrick, who notes that many studies of cognitive training depend on a single test to measure results. “But an issue is the lack of activity within the control group.” Better would be to have the control group do another demanding cognitive task in lieu of Lumosity training—something analogous to a placebo, he says: “The issue is that maybe the improvement in the group that did the cognitive training doesn’t reflect enhancement of basic cognitive processes per se, but could be a motivational phenomenon.”

Full Story: MIT Technology Review: Brain Training May Help Clear Cognitive Fog Caused by Chemotherapy

See also: Dual N-Back FAQ

Dual N-Back FAQ

The Dual N-Back FAQ is a great resource compiling tons of research and advice on using the dual n-back test for improving working memory and/or general intelligence.

SHOULD I DO MULTIPLE DAILY SESSIONS, OR JUST ONE?

Most users seem to go for one long N-back session, pointing out that exercises one’s focus. Others do one session in the morning and one in the evening so they can focus better on each one. There is some scientific support for the idea that evening sessions are better than morning sessions, though; see Kuriyama 2008 on how practice before bedtime was more effective than after waking up.

If you break up sessions into more than 2, you’re probably wasting time due to overhead, and may not be getting enough exercise in each session to really strain yourself like you need to.

And as for frequency/spacing:

This study compared a high intensity working memory training (45 minutes, 4 times per week for 4 weeks) with a distributed training (45 minutes, 2 times per week for 8 weeks) in middle-aged, healthy adults…Our results indicate that the distributed training led to increased performance in all cognitive domains when compared to the high intensity training and the control group without training. The most significant differences revealed by interaction contrasts were found for verbal and visual working memory, verbal short-term memory and mental speed.

It also includes a meta-analysis of studies critical of n-back and found evidence for only one flaw: use of passive control groups, which accounts for about half of the improvement in IQ in some studies.

I found it via Brain Workshop, an opens source n-back application for Windows, OSX and Linux.

Previously: History of the n-back training exercise.

History of the N-Back Training Exercise

Dan Hurley wrote a lengthy New York Times piece covering the origins of the n-back training exercise, which purportedly improves fluid intelligence in those who practice it daily:

The study, by a Swedish neuroscientist named Torkel Klingberg, involved just 14 children, all with A.D.H.D. Half participated in computerized tasks designed to strengthen their working memory, while the other half played less challenging computer games. After just five weeks, Klingberg found that those who played the working-memory games fidgeted less and moved about less. More remarkable, they also scored higher on one of the single best measures of fluid intelligence, the Raven’s Progressive Matrices. Improvement in working memory, in other words, transferred to improvement on a task the children weren’t training for. [...]

When Klingberg’s study came out, both Jaeggi and Buschkuehl were doctoral candidates in cognitive psychology at the University of Bern, Switzerland. Since his high-school days as a Swiss national-champion rower, Buschkuehl had been interested in the degree to which skills — physical and mental — could be trained. Intrigued by Klingberg’s suggestion that training working memory could improve fluid intelligence, he showed the paper to Jaeggi, who was studying working memory with a test known as the N-back. “At that time there was pretty much no evidence whatsoever that you can train on one particular task and get transfer to another task that was totally different,” Jaeggi says. That is, while most skills improve with practice, the improvement is generally domain-specific: you don’t get better at Sudoku by doing crosswords. And fluid intelligence was not just another skill; it was the ultimate cognitive ability underlying all mental skills, and supposedly immune from the usual benefits of practice. To find that training on a working-memory task could result in an increase in fluid intelligence would be cognitive psychology’s equivalent of discovering particles traveling faster than light.

New York Times: Can You Make Yourself Smarter?

Hurley mentions one unpublished study that has failed to replicate the n-back results, but otherwise it is still holding up in tests. However, you should always be weary of the decline effect.

But really, the biggest drawback is probably that it’s hard to get people to start or stick with the n-back. I’ve known about for years now and still haven’t done it.

What’s Next for Cognitive Training Games?

brain

Most of the cognitive training games of 2011 resemble the simple games you can play online for free or apps designed for smartphones. However, in ten years, we can expect many of the big developers, following Nintendo’s lead, to introduce critical gaming elements. Envision games featuring improved graphics, compelling gameplay, and engaging storylines that compel players to train their brains often and in a variety of ways. Imagine a role-playing game (RPG) in which your character’s level and progress are determined in part by your performance on a variety of cognitive training tasks, and the selection of tasks are dependent on the class chosen by the player, and thus tailored made for each individual user. Much in the same way that RPG style games will foster unique training experiences, cognitive training games in general will become tailored to individual interests, focusing on training specific cognitive mechanisms, rather than providing a general training regimen that the user may not be looking for. [...]

Non-Conscious Defenses- Starting all the way back in the 1950’s, firms have sought to understand human psychology in order to capitalize on our biases and tendencies through influencing us on the sub-conscious level. In the past couple decades however, research into non-conscious processing and subliminal priming have begun to unravel the fascinating ways that people develop preferences for products and how they estimate value. Companies have been following this research closely and already implement their findings into many forms of media: magazines, movies and even presidential election commercials (5). Expect that training games will begin to offer cognitive defenses against advertising seeking to influence us on the sub conscious level.

The Future of Brain Workouts

See also: N-Back Training Exercise Still Holding Up in Tests

Cognitive Training Can Alter Biochemistry Of The Brain

Follow-up related to the dual n-back test and its use in intelligence amplification:

Researchers at the Swedish medical university Karolinska Institutet have shown for the first time that the active training of the working memory brings about visible changes in the number of dopamine receptors in the human brain. The study, which is published in the journal Science, was conducted with the help of PET scanning and provides deeper insight into the complex interplay between cognition and the brain’s biological structure. [...]

Professor Klingberg and his colleagues have previously shown that the working memory can be improved with a few weeks’ intensive training. Through a collaborative project conducted under the Stockholm Brain Institute, the researchers have now taken a step further and monitored the brain using Positron Emission Tomography (PET scans), and have confirmed that intensive brain training leads to a change in the number of dopamine D1 receptors in the cortex.

Science Daily: Cognitive Training Can Alter Biochemistry Of The Brain

Previously: Increase your intelligence with 20mins a day brain excerise

Dual n-back training apps:

Soak Your Head (Microsoft Silverline based)

Cognitive Fun (Javascript based)

Brain Workshop (Windows, Mac, possibly Linux)

hback (Linux)

N-Back Suite (iPhone)

IQ Boost (iPhone)

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