Seniors might be trained to ignore distractions

By Ronnie Cohen (Reuters Health) - Older adults who undergo intensive brain training may be able to reverse so-called distractibility, a new study suggests. “Older adults are more distractible than younger adults when we look at any task," neuroscientist Jyoti Mishra, the study’s lead author, told Reuters Health. "It turns out that, with training, older adults can surpass younger adults.” Mishra of the University of California, San Francisco led a team of investigators who used sounds of varied frequencies to train aging rats and people to focus on a specific tone and ignore distractions. The inability to focus on one goal among other options can create daily challenges for older people, the researchers write. The 47 older adults who participated in the study, with an average age of 69, received 12 half-hour training sessions at their homes over four to six weeks. Fifteen younger participants, with an average age of 24, did not receive training. The sessions required the older participants to focus on a specific tone from progressively more challenging frequencies, the authors write in Neuron. Training led to fewer distraction-related errors, and trainees’ memory and attention spans improved, the researchers write. In addition, recordings of the participants' brain electric activity showed reduced responses to the non-target tones. Similar results were observed in the study of rats, the researchers write. As for the humans, older adults first scored 14 percent worse than the younger participants on a test of distractibility, Mishra said. After training, the seniors scored 31 percent better than their untrained younger participants, she said. “One thing we really learned from the study was how to focus,” Mishra said. “By focusing the challenge on the distractions and by making the distractions more difficult, we could really change how the brain responds to distractions.” Mishra and her colleagues are doing similar studies with children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Those results are not yet published. “We’re developing the tools and technology to help people keep their brain sharper, but we’re not saying any such technology is available,” Mishra said. But the study authors do appear to have positioned themselves to use the research in the marketplace, Zachary Shipstead told Reuters Health. A cognitive psychologist and professor at Arizona State University in Phoenix, Shipstead noted that one of the authors, Michael Merzenich, lists himself on the paper as the president and founder of Brain Plasticity Institute, Posit Science, which markets brain-training exercises and partially funded the new study. The senior author, Dr. Adam Gazzaley, is listed as the chief science advisor of Akili Interactive Labs, which sells “electronic medicine,” “cognitive therapeutics, assessments, and diagnostics that look and feel like high-quality video games.” In addition, all four study authors have a patent pending for “Methods of Suppressing Irrelevant Stimuli, which was inspired by the research presented” in the current study, the authors acknowledge. Shipstead, who was not involved in the study, praised it for raising worthwhile questions, but cautioned that consumers should be aware that the questions need more study before the research can be used as a treatment. “It’s the kind of research we should be doing,” Shipstead said. “We should be trying to come up with mental exercises that are going to help people out.” Though trainees reduced their distraction-related mistakes, he said, he questioned whether their improvement transferred to more meaningful skills. “The question is did top-down executive function improve,” Shipstead said. “Is the brain changing in a meaningful way, or are these changes just specific to the task?” The study found that trainees increased the number of letters and numerals they could remember, Mishra said. “We’re really trying to figure out, what does the training do to the brain,” she said. Her advice to aging adults trying to stay sharp: “If you’re paying attention really hard but being challenged, you’re probably going to keep a really strong brain.” SOURCE: Neuron, online November 20, 2014.

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