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Strength Training for the Brain

WINSTON-SALEM, NC -- Can a fitness program for your brain improve thinking and concentration the way lifting weights can increase muscle strength? Early results from a Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center study suggest that attention training can change brain activity so that older adults can block out distractions and improve concentration.

Findings from the study, which used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to record brain activity, were presented June 14 at the Organization for Human Brain Mapping conference in Chicago.

"There are a growing number of activities, from crossword puzzles to Sudoku, promoted as ways to keep our minds young," says Jennifer Mozolic, a Wake Forest graduate student who presented the results. "Our early data suggest that attention training is indeed a way to reduce older adults' susceptibility to distracting stimuli and improve concentration."

The Brain Fitness in Older Adults (B-fit) study is designed to determine if eight hours of brain exercise can improve healthy older adults' (ages 65 to 75 years) ability to filter out unwanted sights and sounds. Funded by the National Institute on Aging and the Wake Forest University Kulynych and General Clinical Research Centers, the study will eventually include 66 participants. Mozolic's presentation was on the first 23 participants.

The B-fit study uses fMRI to visualize blood flow and brain activity to determine how attention training affects brain function. The training involves either a structured one-on-one mental workout program or a group brain exercise program. In the one-on-one sessions, subjects are asked to ignore distracting information and tasks get harder as the eight-week training progresses. For the group sessions, participants learn new information relevant to healthy aging and are tested on their ability to apply the new information.

All participants had an fMRI scan while they completed a task that required them to look for target words or numbers while ignoring distracting sounds. The scans showed brain activity in areas related to both sight and sound. Follow-up fMRIs showed that in the group receiving the one-on-one training, activity related to sight was increased, while activity related to sound was decreased. In addition, performance on the task was improved.

"Behavioral and imaging data support our hypothesis that attention training can reduce multi-sensory integration," Mozolic says. "This suggests that attention training is a potential way to improve sensory processing by reducing older adults' susceptibility to distracting stimuli."

Data gained from an additional 43 participants will enable the researchers to confirm or deny the trends and will provide additional information about the effects of the training.

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