Previous intervention research on cognitive training reveals that memory functioning is flexible and plastic across the lifespan. We investigated the effects of behavioral training, structural and functional brain correlates of behavioral plasticity, and the impact of genetics on training gains in several cognitive domains, such as working memory and episodic memory. In a working memory training study, we observed larger performance gains after adaptive training (training in which task difficulty is adjusted individually) than after low-level practice in younger and older adults. These gains transferred to a test of sustained attention for which participants did not train, and training and transfer effects were maintained across a three-month timespan1. We also observed decreases in neocortical activity and increases in subcortical activity, which were both related to the behavioral performance gains2. Finally, we found that variations in a gene linked to the LMX1 transcription factor, which is implicated in the development of dopamine-producing neurons in the midbrain, affects the magnitude of gains from working memory training3.

In addition, we investigated whether individuals with higher levels of task-relevant cognitive resources gain more or less from instruction and training in imagery-based memory strategies than individuals with lower levels of cognitive resources. Initial instruction reduced between-person differences in memory performance, compensating for inefficient processing among the initially less able. However, further practice after instruction magnified between-person differences, uncovering individual differences in memory plasticity4. We are currently examining the neural correlates of patterns of intervention-related behavioral changes in children, younger adults, and older adults after training in binding together two pieces of information. This work is being done in collaboration with colleagues from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany.

Finally, we found that spatial navigation training is associated with fewer declines in regional brain volumes in adulthood and old age5,6. Our research also shows that younger adults learning a new language at a rapid pace display improvements in memory performance7 and increases in cortical thickness of brain regions classically involved in language processing8.

  1. Brehmer Y, Westerberg H, Bäckman L. Working memory training in younger and older adults: training gains, transfer, and maintenance. Front Hum Neurosci 2012; 6(63):1-7.
  2. Brehmer Y, Rieckmann A, Bellander M, Westerberg H, Fischer H, Bäckman L. Neural correlates of training-related working-memory gains in old age. Neuroimage 2011; 58(4):1110-1120.
  3. Bellander M, Brehmer Y, Westerberg H, Karlsson S, Fürth D, Bergman O, et al. Preliminary evidence that allelic variation in the LMX1A gene influences training-related working memory improvement. Neuropsychologia 2011; 49(7):1938-1942.
  4. Lövdén M, Brehmer Y, Li SC, Lindenberger U. Training-induced compensation versus magnification of individual differences in memory performance. Front Hum Neurosci 2012; 6:141.
  5. Lövdén M, Schaefer S, Noack H, Bodammer NC, Kühn S, Heinze HJ, et al. Spatial navigation training protects the hippocampus against age-related changes during early and late adulthood. Neurobiol Aging 2012; 33(3):620.e9-620.e22.
  6. Wenger E, Schaefer S, Noack H, Kühn S, Mårtensson J, Heinze HJ, et al. Cortical thickness changes following spatial navigation training in adulthood and aging. Neuroimage 2012; 59(4):3389-3397.
  7. Mårtensson J, Lövdén M. Do intensive studies of a foreign language improve associative memory performance? Front Psychol 2011; 2(12):1-6.
  8. Mårtensson J, Eriksson J, Bodammer NC, Lindgren M, Johansson M, Nyberg L, et al. Growth of language-related brain areas after foreign language learning. Neuroimage 2012; 63(1):240-244.