How to Rebuild an Attention Span

In the war on distraction, a new long-term study of disrupted attention, multitasking, and aging shows dramatic results in improving working memory for older participants through use of an online game.
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Begin with a Twist

Let’s start with the twist: A specially-designed video game helped reverse signs of aging in the brains of players in their 60s and 70s. So, even though competing claims on our attention, including from all those devices that bleep and burp and screech, often swamp our ability to focus, evidence from a major study to be published tomorrow indicates that training on a video game improved not only the ability to stay on task but also shored up short-term memory in aging adults.  You may have to read the latter half of that last sentence over again if your email flashed in the background while you skimmed, texts pinged through to your cell phone while you absorbed this new information, and the television erupted with the sound of shelling in Syria while you wondered if you should read on. These are among the wages of rapid-fire disruptions that frequently hobble cognitive functioning in so-called “normal aging.”

Decline in our ability to filter out distraction and focus attention, unfortunately, begins not in middle age but rather in our 20s. Ongoing research on memory over the past five years in the laboratory of Dr. Adam Gazzaley at the University of California-San Francisco identified underlying neural mechanisms that characterize this process of decline. The connections between paying attention, filtering out interference, and remembering are critical because it’s obviously far more difficult to retrieve something never properly imprinted in the first place. Here’s one of the ways we get derailed: Even that casual mention of unfolding catastrophe in Syria in the last paragraph may set off a distracting internal dialogue as other manifestations of external distraction tugged on your attention. In that case, it may be hard to accept the idea that relatively use of an immersive, even fun, video game will help in the war on disruption. Stick with me, here. Maybe you could turn down the volume on a couple of the competing channels? A little more focus, please.

The Results

Here’s the breaking news. In a major, long-term, well-controlled study, published tomorrow on the cover of the prestigious science magazine Nature, researchers in Dr. Gazzaley’s laboratory show that modest exposure to NeuroRacer, the customized video training game, helped participants improve their ability to screen out distraction and stay on task. These are the essential building blocks for successful multitasking. Three linked experiments in the Gazzaley Lab involved 174 subjects grouped evenly along the age continuum, from 20-85-years. Effects of the training were robust, showing notable improvement in the ability of older players to keep on task. Study subjects demonstrated markedly better scores after just 12 sessions in training taken an hour a day and three times a week. A participant aged 79-years old even outscored members of a control group made up of 20-somethings who did not engage in training.

The experiments reported on this week are the latest from the research program of Dr. Gazzaley, a physician and noted brain imager who set out, a decade ago, to create interventions to reverse the tide of aging in the brain. The neuroscientist explains that he’s out to reinforce “top-down modulation” in human cognition, which means strengthening the sense of greater control over cognitive power in aging adults. What’s bound to draw the most attention is the claims that playing the game spilled into a more general shoring up of cognitive abilities.

Most significantly, monitoring through electroencephalography (EEG) showed evidence of markedly increased activity of a particular kind in the prefrontal cortex, part of the brain responsible for cognitive control. Before you speed out to scoop up a raft of commercial video games, though, there’s a caveat from lead author on the study, Joaquin Anguera. “Video games aren't a panacea,” he told me. “Playing Medal of Honor is not going to solve all your problems. The game we designed, NeuroRacer, was sculpted to target a specific ability.” In other words, the neuroscientists built a game designed specifically to promote “interference-resisting abilities,” and they’d gathered evidence of both targeted and larger gains.

The Controversy Over Brain Training

Findings in the study by Anguera, Gazzaley, and nine other colleagues at UCSF build on the work of others in laboratories around the world on the dynamic neuroscientists call transfer. That’s the contested idea that brain training in a specific area can yield more general benefits in cognitive functioning.  The adds another layer to accumulating eveidenc he that video training and other interventions can, under certain circumstances, shore up not only performance in a narrow channel – doing crossword puzzles, remembering larger blocks of numbers, and so on – but also general thinking capacities.

An earlier study, also published in Nature back in 2010, dumped all over the idea that brain training games yielded anything more than the ability to improve performance on narrow grounds. The publicity the earlier study generated left the impression that transfer was quite rare, perhaps even illusory. In fact, “Game Over for Brain Training” was the headline on a video about the 2010 study of 11,500 participants, still posted on the Website of neuroscientist Adrian Owen. Owen, a noted neuroscientist, oversaw the earlier study which evaluated claims of beneficial effects of other video games.

“The holy grail of brain training is that they will transfer to other brain functions,” he explained on a television show, broadcast by BBC, built around the experiment as it unfolded. “We all know that if you practice something you will get good at it. There’s no question that if you practice on a brain training game you’ll get better at that brain training game. The question we were trying to get at is: Does it lead to any general benefit in other areas of life, in other aspects of cognitive function?” In clarifying the point, Owen added, “If you want to get better at playing the violin, practice the violin. But you’re not going to get any better at playing the trumpet by practicing the violin.”

The conclusion that brain training had no transfer effect, and the publicity it generated around the world, only fueled rising skepticism about outsize claims of those promoting everything from supplements to quick-fix gimmicks in the multimillion dollar enterprise aimed at the burgeoning population of aging adults concerned about fading memory. In an overall review of those claims, the Stanford Center on Longevity previously warned that an exploitative hard sell for products from computer training to supplements ranged “from reasonable though untested to blatantly false.” There were few provable links between discrete activities and broader benefits, the review concluded.  In other words, taking your vitamins or doing a variety of brain training exercises was unlikely to help you retrieve the name of your boss’s partner, painfully tripping along the tip of your tongue.

In the current report in Nature, however, 11 researchers in Gazzaley’s laboratory presented persuasive evidence of transfer. They ventured one step further, detailing the underlying neural mechanisms at play.   “… (A)ge-related deficits in neural signatures of cognitive control, as measured with electroencephalography were remediated by multitasking training (ie. enhanced midline frontal theta power and frontal-posterior theta coherence),” they write. Use of the specially-designed game, in other words, markedly improved performance of older adults not merely on the game itself but also led to robust increases in activity in those parts of the brain’s prefrontal cortex associated with greater cognitive control.

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Douglas Foster is associate professor at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and author of After Mandela: The Struggle for Freedom in Post Apartheid South Africa.

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