Brain training can improve performance by physically changing the brain. A recent study observed such changes in adults: only 12 weeks of brain training increased blood flow and enhanced functional and physical communication across brain regions. These changes were related to improved abstract thinking.
Thirthy-seven adults aged 56 to 71 participated in the study. Half went through 12 weeks of directed brain training (one-hour session per week) and the other half were in a wait-list control group.
The training involved synthesizing information, innovative thinking, and problem solving. Participants were encouraged to use the strategies provided during training in their daily life and were also asked to work by themselves at home for 2h each week.
The health of the participants’ brain was assessed using three different MRI-based measurements: cerebral blood flow at rest, synchrony in brain networks and the integrity of white matter (ie, the structural wiring of the brain that allows information to travel from neurons to neurons, and from regions to regions).
Brain training had the following effects:
- Global and regional blood flow increased by 8%. Of note, brain blood flow is a sensitive marker of brain health and has been shown to start declining as early as in one’s 20s.
- The synchrony in important brain networks increased.
- Structural connections (white matter) increased between brain regions involved in new learning.
The brain changes observed after brain training suggest that the participants gained measurable brain health.
In addition, these changes were related to better cognitive scores in measures of abstract thinking. People who trained their brain improved their ability to synthesize and extract ideas from lengthy inputs.
This study shows the neural substrate of brain training. It demonstrates that the brain can change following challenging brain exercise, even in older adults. Importantly these changes are related to performance improvement. In sum, it may never be too late to participate in activities to maintain, and even improve, brain health.
References: Chapman, S. et al. (2013). Neural Mechanisms of Brain Plasticity with Complex Cognitive Training in Healthy Seniors. Cereb. Cortex. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bht234