Training revitalizes old brains

By Rob Warren

A new University study shows that training can help older brains work more like their younger counterparts, something that had not been addressed in previous studies on the topic.

The study, which was overseen by psychology professor Arthur Kramer in the University’s Aging Lab in the Beckman Institute for the Advancement of Science and Technology, is scheduled for publication in the next Neurobiology of Aging journal.

“We showed that training induced plasticity in older adults and reduced differences in activity with younger brains,” said Kirk Erickson, author of the study and cognitive neuroscience postdoctoral student. Plasticity is the ability of the brain to adapt to new tasks.

The study used dual-tasks, which require subjects to perform two separate actions, Erickson said.

Previous studies show that older subjects do not perform as well as younger subjects on dual-task tests, Erickson said.

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Subjects in the study had to differentiate between the colors green and yellow and between the letters “b” and “c.” Participants had to respond to both tasks quickly before getting the next set. Participants’ response times were measured to determine performance.

Erickson said dual tasks use areas of the brain that are involved in working memory and selective attention.

The imaging technology used in the experiment measures brain activity by “bouncing” radio waves off of a subject’s brain, said Jennifer Kim, graduate student, who prepared and ran subjects for the study.

Areas of the brain that are more active receive more oxygenated blood than less active areas, and the imaging technology can differentiate between those areas, said Nancy Dodge, technician for the study.

Previous studies show that older adults tend to use both hemispheres of the brain, perhaps in order to make up for the loss of functionality, Erickson said.

The study recruited younger and older participants and placed them in control and experimental groups. The experimental groups received training for the dual-task test and the control groups did not. All groups first performed the tasks with the imaging technology to measure their initial performance, in order for the testers to look for differences later on.

Erickson said the control groups took a 2-3 week break. The groups that did receive training had five one-hour practice sessions in which they performed the tasks on a computer over the course of the 2-3 week period. The computer program gave these participants feedback based on their performance.

If participants were accurately identifying the colors and letters, the program would encourage them to work faster, and if they were making mistakes, it would tell them to slow down, Erickson said.

After the training period, all participants were given a dual-task test to compare changes in activity.

Erickson said the study’s results were encouraging.

“Age-related decline in cognitive abilities was reduced with training,” he said.

The study showed that the older adults who received training significantly improved their response times, unlike the older adults who were in the control group.

Erickson said younger participants showed increased activity in areas where they had less activity than older adults previously. Older participants, who previously had higher activity, showed a decrease in activity in those areas.

The convergence of the training groups showed that both young and old brains perform similarly when they have had training, Erickson said.

“The research definitely has outside applications. Older people who, for instance, have trouble using computers or driving cars might benefit from simple training,” Erickson said.