S2E29. Brain Training Is Hard Work!

As I mentioned at the end of the last episode, my disappointment with my short-term memory led me to subscribe to ‘BrainHQ,’ a computerized cognitive training program. This past week was my first week using it and…man o’ man!!!…it’s hard work!

Before I continue, let me reassure you that I am not shilling for BrainHQ. I chose it from the myriad of online cognitive training offerings because it is being used in a range of research programs and has some published studies to support it. Having said that, the data is mixed and the jury is still out as to whether or not this particular program (or any purported brain-enhancing program) generates any meaningful improvement in one’s life.

But—just as I decided that in regards to diet that if I’m going to put something in my mouth, then it might as well provide something that supports brain health—I came to the same conclusion about computer games. Instead of wasting an inordinate amount of time playing a mindless but addictive game like ‘Bubble Shooter,’ I might as well get some benefit out of that same block of time by playing games that just might provide some health benefit. 

To see if it was really worth doing, though, I spent time this week looking at some of the recently published research about the effects of cognitive training programs. One study that caught my eye was a meta-analysis (i.e., a study that analyzes the data from many studies all at once) of changes in brain connectivity attributable to cognitive training. 

You might recall from S2E23: Repaving Your Cognitive Infrastructure that our brains develop neural circuits that connect distant areas that are used simultaneously to complete tasks. As we age and our abilities start to decay, we recruit more areas to help perform the same functions. This is made possible by brain plasticity and is at the heart of cognitive resilience as a protective factor against dementia.

The meta-analysis I read combined data from a number of fMRI studies and revealed that computerized cognitive training changed these pathways and linkages. There were increases in activity in some areas and decreases in others. The overall pattern was to move in the direction of restoring the circuitry that existed before age-related attrition began. In effect, it (roughly) restored your brain to the way it was two years earlier. That’s pretty impressive, no?  

If I’m understanding it correctly, when your frontal lobes begin to atrophy, your brain recruits neurons from other more posterior regions to pick up the slack. But cognitive training strengthens your frontal lobes so they no longer need to use the support they had previously requisitioned. Thus the frontal areas showed more activation and the more posterior areas showed less. Fascinating!

So I jumped into my training with the fervor of a new convert and immediately set a goal of ‘working out’ for an hour every day. This, apparently, was considered a very aggressive plan of action as BrainHQ recommended 20 minutes/day at least 3 times a week as a good place to start.

The program allows you to target a variety of brain functions (e.g., attention, speed, memory) and so I went after memory instead of following the suggested general approach which covers all the bases. Was I in for a surprise!

It was really hard. The tasks included both audio and visual versions of the ‘N-Back’ card task that I described in last week’s episode (S2E28), as well as an audio version of the card game ‘Concentration.’ 

The program is designed to push you to a challenging level without frustrating you to the extent that you quit. So the exercises start off easy, progress until you fail, and then drop back to easier versions. The sweet spot is when you maintain an 80% correct response rate.

I struggled with the frustration, though. On the N-Back card task, I mustered up all the attention and focus I could to visualize the briefly-shown cards in an order that would help me identify the correct one when the time came….but I didn’t get very far.  😦

All of my best efforts not withstanding, my visualizations of the cards would disappear shortly after a few new cards were turned over. It was as if an evil magician was doing a disappearing act inside my head. Poof! Now you see it…now you don’t!

I beat up on myself because I knew that my performance represented a decline from my peak abilities. Yes, I know that this is true for all of us if we are fortunate enough to get to this age, but having it slap me in the face like that was a little hard to take.

About three days into my training, I recalled something I learned in graduate school. Your brain has a ready supply of neurotransmitters on call to maintain a high level of focused attention for about 45 minutes. After that, you can still focus, but your efficiency drops off. I used this fact when I was taking hours long exams by stopping every half hour and doing deep-breathing exercise for 3 minutes to restore my neurotransmitter reserve before returning to the test. It seemed to work then, so I applied the principle again now: I divided my hour of daily exercise into two 30-minute sessions several hours apart. I could feel the difference and see the improvement in my performance during the second half of the workout. 

(Come to think of it…45 minutes is about how long I can practice the recorder or read a book without losing focus. Interesting!)

The good news here is that, after a week of training, I can see that I’ve made progress on all of the tasks. Not a lot, but progress, nonetheless. Enough progress to keep me from quitting. But, damn…this is hard work!


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