USYD JacarandaIntroducing the Cognitive Training Lab

The Cognitive Training Lab is a team of research psychologists in the School of Psychology, led by Dr Damian Birney. The  Lab was initially established in 2014 to investigate and optimise brain training programs. We aim to better understand the components that make training programs successful. Our findings will form the basis for better-designed training, with direct applications to both healthy and clinical populations.

The logic of brain training rests on recent advances in psychology and neuroscience. Historically, neuroscientists believed that neurogenesis (the creation of new neurons) did not occur in adults, whereas we now know that it can and does occur. We also know that new neurons only survive if synaptogenesis (the creation of new synapses linking neurons) also takes place. The most effective way to promote synaptogenesis is to learn new information or skills. As per the aphorism, “Use it or lose it!”

In a similar vein, psychology has traditionally considered fluid intelligence to be ‘fixed’ and immune to all artificial attempts to increase it beyond its natural cognitive peak in late adolescence. However, recent research suggests strong similarities between fluid intelligence and working memory. And, preliminary evidence supports the possibility of increasing fluid intelligence by training working memory – a key domain targeted in brain training programs.

Brain training has received widespread attention and has been promoted as a means to enhance academic and occupational achievement, as well as prevent or delay cognitive decline and dementia. However, these optimistic claims currently lack strong research support. Our lab seeks to gather and assess evidence related to whether brain training is effective and how it might be improved.

Ultimately, for brain training to be effective, it is not enough for people’s performance to increase on the trained games – that might be reducible to what’s known as a practice effect. People should also improve on other similar tasks (near transfer) and dissimilar tasks (far transfer). We are looking at ways to maximse near and far transfer – from people’s characteristics, such as their motivational state, to aspects of the training tasks, such as adaptivity and optimal difficulty.

ARC Discovery Project

Our current research is funded by an ARC Discovery Project, “Development of cognitive functions in adult populations”. Cognitive functioning has significant social, health and economic effects in the form of either benefits from improved functioning or costs due to cognitive decline. In the latter regard, an aging population presents major challenges to society. This project will investigate the effects of different training regimes on cognition and a range of related outcomes, including transfer of skills, personality change and social functioning, on a highly innovative brain training App being developed in collaboration with the ABC. A large sample of Australians will be recruited by the ABC, who will communicate the research results, plus develop and deliver materials and programs based on the research findings to a range of different audiences.

Current and Future Studies

The ‘Cognitive Training in Adults’ study is being run by the Lab within the School of Psychology. The project will investigate the effects of different training regimes on cognition and a range of related outcomes including transfer of skills, personality change and social functioning. Our training regimes involve the use of a brain-training App developed in collaboration with the ABC. Active Memory is an ABC commercial product designed for online brain-training with games in Memory, Flexibility, Attention, and a range of other cognitive domains.

Study 1

The focus of study one was to elucidate the cognitive and non-cognitive individual differences factors underlying existing performance trajectories in online brain training games. More specifically, we investigated the extent that non-cognitive attributes (e.g., personality factors, beliefs, motivation) interact with cognitive attributes (e.g., memory, attention, fluid intelligence) to influence training outcomes and rates of improvement on brain games.  We explored the following:

  • The relationship between game performance trajectories and session-contingent self-report measures of self-efficacy, task-focus and satisfaction.
  • The relationship between game performance trajectories and personality factors and attitudes and beliefs about learning.
  • Whether individuals performance on brain training games is different when they have structured versus free play.

Study 2

The aim of study two was to examine the effect that different brain training schedules (structured versus free play) would have on a range of cognitive (i.e., memory, attention, fluid intelligence) and non-cognitive measures (i.e., personality factors, beliefs and motivation), when tested before and after a set amount of brain training.

The different training conditions included either training on a single cognitive function (e.g., memory) or several cognitive functions (e.g., memory, attention, and flexibility). We investigated the extent to which training in one (e.g., memory) or multiple areas (e.g., memory, attention, and flexibility) transfers to non-trained areas and performance of everyday tasks. These transfer effects were tested on a range of criterion measures, of which are ecologically valid indicators of cognitive functions. Once such example is the Conversation Task, where individuals watch a series of short 2-4 minute conversations and are asked to recall information from the videos. This cognitive task was developed as a measure of verbal comprehension and recall, which attempts to emulate an everyday task.

Study 3

Our current study is investigating the effects of massed-versus-distributed practice in a set of brain training games. The former focuses on a specific cognitive function (e.g., all memory tasks: digit-span, complex-span, n-back tasks) and the latter on a diverse range of cognitive functions (combining memory, attention/inhibition, and fluid reasoning tasks).

The study aims to investigate and isolate processes that underlie cognitive task adaptivity across multiple sessions, and to take account of the motivational processes that produce sustained engagement across repetitious training sessions. An additional goal of this study, is to understand the utility of knowledge acquisition theories in cognitive training processes (rather than for knowledge).

In addition, we are collaborating the Brain & Mind Research Institute (BMRI) in order to investigate what changes in the brain occur as a result of playing brain-training games. More specifically, this sub-study involves participants having a brain scan (Magnetic Resonance Imaging Scanning [MRI]) both before and after a set amount of training on brain games. This sub-study aims to:

  • Characterise and quantify key neurobiological changes following computer-based brain training.
  • Determine whether regional differences exist in structural, functional or metabolic brain changes following brain training.
  • Whether any such global or regional training-related changes are associated with concurrent changes in performance on behavioural measures of cognitive function.