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Neurofeedback Could Increase Cognitive Performance by Reconnecting the Brain


The brain isn’t just one thing. It’s made up of many different networks, such as those associated with reasoning, short-term memory, and verbal ability. Perhaps that’s why a drug hasn’t been found that reliably enhances cognitive performance by “boosting” your brain. That would be like a drug that enhances health by “boosting” every organ in your body.

The brain, though, can change, and one way it changes is by adjusting connections between its different networks. A fascinating new study (just published in the journal Cerebral Cortex) has tried to harness the ability for the brain to tweak itself, by training people to strengthen or weaken connections between brain regions.

A technique called neurofeedback was used. Participants performed a task in which they imagined moving their fingers while having their their brains scanned. When connectivity between certain regions changed, they got a reward. That’s it; they just got feedback on what their brains were doing, and rewarded for certain patterns. It sounds weird, but it worked: connectivity between brain regions actually changed.

Connectivity between those brain regions has previously been associated with cognitive performance. And indeed, when people were trained to alter connectivity, their performance changed on cognitive tasks, such as sustained attention and a Stroop task similar to Double Trouble.

It’s worth reiterating that these people didn’t do any brain training tasks, consume anything different, or change their lifestyles—they didn’t physically do anything at all! They just sat there and got feedback on their brains. That was enough to result in changes.

Practical applications are a long way off; for one thing, most people don’t have an fMRI machine lying around. However, it shows some promise in more targeted interventions. Instead of claiming to boost the whole brain, future interventions could target specific brain regions and connections. Maybe techniques could even be tailored to specific people.

This post was written by Mike Battista, a staff scientist at Cambridge Brain Sciences.