Healthy Aging

Scientists Zero In on a Brain Workout That Works


Having trouble remembering names?

Maybe your brain needs a workout – but not just any old workout.

Researchers have found that if you train your brain for 20 minutes a day over the course of about a month using a specific exercise that’s been validated by scientists, you can whip that noggin into shape. It’s been tested with children as well as with seniors, and longterm benefits were found across age ranges.

The n-Back Brain Task

The exercise, or “task,” is called the n-back. It’s available for free online. Over the past 10 years, researchers including Susanne Jaeggi, PhD, of the University of Maryland, have found that it really works. The amazing thing: Once you get good at this n-back task, which taxes your working memory, your brian ”transfers” that improvement to other areas.

“These transfer effects are improvements that go beyond what people are training on,”  says Jaeggi, who presented an update of her research at the recent meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society. For instance, one task-master reported better chess skills. Another said that sight-reading music at the piano was easier.

The n-back task involves looking at a series of squares that show up in different locations within a grid. You’re asked to press a key when the square lands in the same position as it did one spot back – then two back, and so on. On some versions, you also are asked to keep track of letters as they are repeated, and to press another response key if the letter you hear is the same as one back –  or two, and so on.

How to Train Your Brain

Brain training takes time, says Jaeggi, an assistant professor of psychology who holds PhDs in psychology and neuroscience.

“Typically we have people train for about 20 minutes a day for 15 or 20 sessions,” Jaeggi tells Senior Planet. “You really need to focus your attention.”

She compares it to physical fitness. “When you want to become physically fit, it’s not enough to go out for a stroll,” she says. “You have to devote some time before you see some benefit.”

In a study of 65 healthy seniors with an average age of 68, Jaeggi found that the group that trained the most improved the most – proving, she says, that the brain’s ”plasticity” persists. In other words, the improvement stuck.

The success with the task, she says, refutes the notion that no matter how hard you try, you can’t get smarter. She and her colleagues have found increased IQ scores after even three weeks of training.

Taking the Plunge

After plenty of coffee, I tackled the n-back task.

My results? Less than stellar, at 70%. However, I have life-long test anxiety, which wasn’t calmed by the reassurance that this is not a test, it’s just training.

See the links below to get started. Tips: take the tutorial. And be sure to start with the task level set at one.

Why Does the n-Back Work?

Experts are still unraveling how the task helps, and why it has this transfer effect.  “When your brain becomes more efficient, when you get better at a task, your networks become more proficient,” Jaeggi says. “The activation of those networks goes down. You are more efficient at using resources.”

Think of the physical fitness analogy again. “When you go jogging for a month and improve your cardiovascular fitness, during the month you will notice other improvements. You get better at biking or swimming, because your cardiovascular system is becoming more efficient and powerful.”

“The same thing happens in the brain,” she says. The n-back task improves your ability to remember information for a short period of time and manipulate the information in your head. “We see this working memory as the cardiovascular system of the brain.”  When you train this underlying system, you should become better at other tasks that rely on it, too.

Jaeggi and others are trying to understand why some people are better at the task than others. (I suggest a handicap for anxious test takers.)

For how long do the brain benefits stay in place? You’ll probably need to do booster sessions to maintain the effect, she says.

The n-back task is not the only way to improve your mental fitness, according to Jaeggi. What’s key, she says, is to stay cognitively engaged. She suggests taking up a new hobby, learning a new language or being socially active.

Read More

The version of the n-back task developed at the University of Maryland is not for public use, Jaeggi says, but only for research purposes. However, other versions are freely available online. While Jaeggi says she doesn’t endorse any specifically, she suggests two free sites to check out.

 What do you do to exercise your brain? Tell us in the comments box below.


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