Posts Tagged ‘impulse control’

The Workings of Working Memory

Friday, January 27th, 2012

Synaptic Communication

How do we keep thoughts in our mind? It seems a simple question until we remind ourselves of the brain as a dynamic labyrinth of neurons constantly firing and receiving electrical signals. But researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison believe they’ve figured out how working memory holds a piece of information. The holder of a thought, they have discovered, is a molecular sensor that controls nerve cell communication keeping a message present and active even long after its delivery.

“The sensor could play a role in keeping a thought ‘on line’ until it is either lost or burned into longer-lasting forms of memory,” says the study lead Dr. Edwin Chapman, a professor at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health.

Most communication between synapses occurs instantaneously–an electrical impulse spurs calcium in the sending cell to release a burst of neurotransmitter into the receiving cell. This process takes just milliseconds to play out.

The Wisconsin scientists focused instead on a second, slower, asynchronous communication phase, in which residual levels of calcium continue to cause the release of neurotransmitters over several seconds.

“We knew that different calcium sensors controlled these two distinct phases of synaptic transmission,” says Chapman, based in the Department of Neuroscience.

The team theorized that slow transmission, with its maintenance of a communication state for a longer time period, might be the key to the retention of thoughts in working memory. They found that they were able to change the speed of slow release with higher and lower levels of a protein called Doc2 without impacting fast release.

“Doc2 took its time responding to calcium, unlike synaptotagmin, which responded immediately,” Chapman says.

The research could eventually produce practical results providing insight into conditions such as autism and schizophrenia. “Defects in release mechanisms are seen in many nerve diseases,” says Chapman.


Working Memory Training to Reduce Alcohol Consumption

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

Reduce DrinkingDutch scientists have found that working memory training can reduce drinking for problem drinkers. The researchers from Maastricht University in the Netherlands concluded that working memory training may be an effective strategy to reduce drinking because it increases control over automatic impulses to drink alcohol.

Under the direction of Katrijn Houben, the team recruited problem drinkers (identified using the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test or AUDIT test) and divided them into two groups — the first group receiving 25 sessions of working memory training, and the control group engaging in tasks that were not designed to increase working memory (the same tasks, but with no change in the level of difficulty). For at least a month after training, the group who had received working memory training reported a reduction in alcohol consumption of more than 30%.

Furthermore, the researchers found that the reduction in alcohol consumption was greatest for those with the most subconscious positive associations with alcohol. This supported the theory that working memory training was able to reduce drinking by allowing the participants to gain greater control over their subconscious impulses.

The following working memory training tasks were used in the study:

“During the visuospatial WM task, several squares in a 4 × 4 grid on a computer screen changed color. Participants had to reproduce the sequence of changes by using a computer mouse to click, in order, on the squares that had changed color. During the backward digit span task, several numbers were presented on the computer screen one at a time, and participants had to reproduce this sequence in reverse order using either the computer mouse or the number keys on the keyboard. Finally, in the letter span task, several letters were presented one at a time in a circle on the computer screen. One of the positions in this circle was then indicated, and participants had to enter the corresponding letter using the keyboard. Each of the three tasks consisted of 30 trials.”

Sticky Thoughts: Working Memory Training To Alleviate Depression

Friday, July 15th, 2011
working memory and depression

The Bane Of Sticky Thoughts

Our own customers and previous published research studies have demonstrated a strong connection between working memory training and a reduction in depression. A new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science suggests that people with depression find it difficult to move on from depressive thoughts. The study centered on the central role of working memory in this process.

Those with depression tend to revisit depressing memories. “They basically get stuck in a mindset where they relive what happened to them over and over again,” said Jutta Joormann from the University of Miami, study co-author with Sara Levens and Ian H. Gotlib of Stanford University. “Even though they think, oh, it’s not helpful, I should stop thinking about this, I should get on with my life—they can’t stop doing it,” she said. The team postulated a link between depression and working memory function, or malfunction. The brain uses working memory for all active thoughts — both those we want and those that creep in uninvited.

Testing twenty-six people with depression and twenty-seven who had never suffered from depression, the team presented each participant with three words in turn, allowing them one second to read the word. After being instructed to remember the words in forward or reverse order they were shown one of the words from the list and asked to say whether it had come first second or third. A faster response indicated more flexible thinking.

The results showed that the group with depression took longer to answer correctly after reversing the sequence. When the list contained words likely to be connected to depressive feelings, such as “death” or “sadness,” it took them longer still.

“The order of the words sort of gets stuck in their working memory, especially when the words are negative,” Joormann says.

So, what can we do with this information? Train our brains to be better at actively focusing on what we want to pay attention to!  Fortunately, working memory is a very flexible and trainable brain function. Intensive working memory training can help us in the moment to get into a better mood because it redirects our attention. It can also help us long term to gain greater control over our impulses and active working memory.

Working Memory Capacity & Emotional Control

Monday, June 13th, 2011

Various brain fitness studies have shown that working memory capacity plays a key role in our ability to control our impulses. Now brain fitness researchers from Case Western Reserve University have published a fascinating study that ties our working memory capacity to our resilience in the face of criticism.

The CWRU brain fitness team measured working memory capacity by asking the study participants to solve math problems while remembering words. The researchers followed this with a test, and gave either negative feedback or no feedback. Negative feedback took the form of commentary on the individual’s character such as “your responses indicate that you have a tendency to be egotistical, placing your own needs ahead of the interests of others” or that “if you fail to mature emotionally or change your lifestyle, you may have difficulty maintaining these friendships and are likely to form insecure relations.”

Immediately after delivering negative or no feedback, the researchers asked the participants to rate their familiarity with a list of people and places — some real, some fictitious. By measuring the participants’ likelihood to claim knowledge of the fictitious items, the researchers were able to determine how well they were coping with negative criticism. While such “over claiming” in a normal social environment would be considered boastful and immodest, over claiming after being criticized or demeaned is a natural and effective tool for assuaging heated emotions.

The brain fitness researchers found that participants with higher levels of working memory capacity over-claimed the most and reported fewer negative emotions such as shame or distress.

Or, put another way, with working memory training we can improve the tools we naturally possess to respond resiliently in stressful situations. Yet another great reason to stick with the brain training software!

Neurogenesis & Addiction

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

Novel research at UT Southwestern Medical Center hints at new hope in combating addiction and dependence. The researchers’ experiments indicate that stimulating an increase in neurogenesis (brain cell growth) might help prevent addiction, dependence, or relapse. This is fascinating in the context of intensive brain training with programs such as Brain Fitness Pro.

Parallel studies show that intensive working memory training stimulates neurogenesis. Further, my own experience and the anecdotal experiences of Mind Sparke customers indicates that the training helps improve impulse control, self esteem, and elevate mood.

Published in the Journal of Neuroscience, the UT team’s work is the first research to directly link addiction with neurogenesis in the hippocampus.

“More research will be needed to test this hypothesis, but treatments that increase adult neurogenesis may prevent addiction before it starts, which would be especially important for patients treated with potentially addictive medications,” said Dr. Amelia Eisch, senior study author and associate professor of psychiatry at UT Southwestern. “Additionally, treatments that increase adult neurogenesis during abstinence might prevent relapse.”

Dr. Eisch and her team radiated rats’ brains to stop neurogenesis in the hippocampus. In one experiment, rats accessed cocaine by pressing a lever. The rats with radiated brains took more cocaine than rats that did not receive radiation.

In a second experiment, after becoming accustomed to taking cocaine the team radiated the rats, stopping neurogenesis while drugs were removed. Rats with reduced neurogenesis took more time to realize that the lever would no longer dispense cocaine.

“The nonirradiated rats didn’t like the cocaine as much and learned faster to not press the formerly drug-associated lever,” Dr. Eisch said. “In the context of this experiment, decreased neurogenesis fueled the process of addiction, instead of the cocaine changing the brain.”

Dr. Eisch plans to study other drugs of abuse, using imaging technology to study addiction and hippocampal neurogenesis in humans.

“If we can create and implement therapies that prevent addiction from happening in the first place, we can improve the length and quality of life for millions of drug abusers, and all those affected by an abuser’s behavior,” she said.

Brain Training for Rehabilitation

Monday, January 25th, 2010

brain training prison Scottish Scotland nintendo-dsThis report (Nintendo for Scottish prisoners) has already raised eyebrows, but I think the fundamental concept of helping prisoners improve their core skills has merit.

It’s also intriguing to think what a more serious brain training program could do for someone who has impulse control problems. Working memory capacity has been shown to be crucial to impulse control. When we overload our working memory we resort to emotional decisions. Likewise, if we boost our working memory capacity we can maintain more self control.

I’d love to see Mind Sparke training evaluate in Scottish prisons…

Willpower And Working Memory – Any Connection?

Thursday, May 14th, 2009

Scientists studying willpower have used brain scans to show that people who seem to be able to exert willpower engage a region of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Brain scans of those who don’t display willpower showed no activation in this region.

The link to working memory – the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is also involved in working memory processing.

I was fascinated when I saw this study because many of us who train working memory have found benefits to impulse control and task completion.

Read the full article on our sister blog.