Training for your brain

Who has seen Limitless and not wished to get their hands on some sweet, sweet, brain-enhancing NZT?

Sorry folks, we’re not announcing a drug like this just yet. But researchers are working on something that really can make you smarter. It’ll take slightly more effort than popping pills — but it’s much safer, and there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy it.

The prospect of enhancing cognition is one of the most exciting goals in research today.

Cognitive and Brain Plasticity Induced by Physical Exercise, Cognitive Training, Video Games and Combined Interventions explores how a host of fun and accessible activities can boost brain function, both in healthy individuals and those with neurological disorders. Selected as a 2018 Spotlight finalist, this collection of research articles from 250 prominent neuroscientists, psychologists and sports scientists across five continents shows that training our body and mind can harness neuroplasticity — the brain’s ability to reorganize its connections — to enhance important cognitive functions and stave off cognitive decline.

The Research Topic has set minds in motion already, with the articles receiving an average of 5 citations so far plus more than 300,000 views and 33,000 downloads. And with features in a massive 86 news outlets — including The New York Times — it’s getting the public pretty exercised too.

Soledad Ballesteros explains why she and fellow psychology Professors Claudia Voelcker-Rehage and Louis Bherer launched this Research Topic, some of its outcomes, and what winning the 2018 Frontiers Spotlight Award would mean for the mind-altering field of cognitive enhancement.

Why was this Research Topic created?

“The prospect of enhancing our brain power, or cognition, is one of the most exciting goals in research today,” says Ballesteros. “Evidence is growing rapidly that this can be achieved through cognitive training, video games, physical exercise, and other forms of brain stimulation.”

These include training of specific motor skills and even rhythm, as well as meditation and mindfulness, combined interventions, and neurofeedback — in which a person’s brainwaves are measured and displayed in real time during training to show them how they’re performing.

Ballesteros is particularly excited by the potential of these interventions to help with neurological disorders.

“This Research Topic has demonstrated a range of cognitive benefits in developmental disorders like autism, ADHD and dyslexia; degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s; and also following brain injury from stroke or head trauma.”

It almost sounds too good to be true — but Ballesteros believes the articles offer a comprehensive and realistic view.

“We need to look more long-term at how cognitive function can be maintained over time, and how to avoid pitfalls like gaming addiction and social isolation — all of which have been addressed by our authors.

“This is vital to pave the way to translation to clinical practice, and lifelong cognitive health and performance.”

What type of research is included?

The topic fills important gaps in cognitive enhancement research through reviews, expert hypotheses and original research articles — with a special emphasis on randomized controlled trials and longitudinal intervention studies.

According to Ballesteros, most existing cognitive training studies only look for effects on the tasks for which people received training or closely related tasks, known as ‘near transfer.’

“The potency of cognitive training depends on evidence of durable far transfer from training to clinically meaningful, untrained functions.”

She also points to gaps in trials of other brain training activities.

“For video games, there is a need to account for individual differences in cognitive benefits and to address expectancy bias and placebo effects in study designs. In exercise and motor skills trials, more data are needed on dose-response relationships between different types of physical activity and performance in various cognitive domains.

“And for all interventions, behavioral data should be supported by functional and structural measurements — and crucially also to show the effects of combined interventions on cognitive performance and brain health.”

What are some outcomes of this Research Topic?

From a wealth of studies on young and old people, those with a neurological disorder or with none — and even on drummers, Raja Yoga expert meditators and whirling dervishes — Ballesteros highlights a few of the exciting results.

One study showed that video games can harness residual neuroplasticity in older people to improve memory.

“Cognitively healthy older adults trained with non-action video games showed post-training improvements in visuospatial working memory as well as short-term and episodic memory — some of which were maintained during a 3-month follow-up period.”

Another study showed far transfer from trained to untrained executive cognitive functions in young adults. These are high-level thinking and memory processes required for the conscious control of behavior.

“Healthy 18–25 year-old undergraduates were given computer-based training in working memory (WM: retaining and applying information over short periods) or inhibitory control (IC: categorizing objects with distracting, incongruous features). Compared to simpler control tasks, the trained groups improved in the trained task and in specific near transfer tasks — but most interestingly, the IC group showed far transfer to abstract reasoning. And even more interestingly, these findings were obtained with just six training sessions.”

A trial in children demonstrates that motor-enriched learning can improve mathematical performance.

“A 6-week study of young school children aged 7 to 8 found that for normal math performers, the integration of gross motor activities — skipping, crawling, hopscotching — into lessons led to larger improvements in test scores than lessons with fine motor activities or none.”

Finally, a widely-cited methodological article acts a guide to help avoid common pitfalls when designing or analyzing an intervention.

“The authors highlight a range of pervasive statistical flaws in cognitive enhancement studies — and simulate each to its underlying mechanisms, gauge its magnitude, and discuss potential remedies.”

Why should this Research Topic win the 2018 Spotlight Award?

Schmidt believes a win would help to translate these discoveries into new therapies.

“These are fascinating insights, but for many of these diseases it is difficult to establish a causal link to gut bacteria — and thereby inform rational treatment design. As we aim increasingly for personalized medicine, it is also important to understand the role of the gut microbiome in treatment response.

“A conference built around our Research Topic would help to attract the talent and investment required to build on its findings, towards these goals.”

About the Frontiers Spotlight Award

The annual Frontiers Spotlight Award supports emerging and important fields of research published as a Research Topic in Frontiers journals. The winning team of Topic Editors receives US$100,000 to organize an international scientific conference on the theme of their successful Research Topic. Learn more about the Award

About Frontiers Research Topics

Research Topics are peer-reviewed article collections published around specialized themes. They bring together leading researchers from different institutions, locations and fields of interest, who collaborate and contribute articles.

Published on Frontiers’ award-winning platform, Research Topics are fully open and accessible, and become highly visible collections of work, enhancing both the readership and citations of articles. Learn more about Research Topics

How to enter

Every Research Topic that closes within the award period and is completed with at least 10 articles, will be considered for the Spotlight Award. Shape your field and have the chance to organize your own conference – suggest your Research Topic today!

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Research Topic Editors

Soledad Ballesteros     Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), Spain

Soledad Ballesteros
Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED), Spain

Claudia Voelcker-Rehage     Technische Universität Chemnitz, Germany

Claudia Voelcker-Rehage
Technische Universität Chemnitz, Germany

Louis Bherer     Université de Montréal, Canada

Louis Bherer
Université de Montréal, Canada