Working memory training has been shown to be effective in improving fluid intelligence in humans. Now, research out of Rutgers has shown a similar effect in mice. This finding in mice reinforces the idea that brain enhancement through neuroplasticity is generally possible among mammals, and it opens up exciting possibilities for future research.
Researchers trained mice on a task that exercised working memory and attention, and measured their ability to perform a range of mentally challenging tasks before and after training. The mice that received focused brain training improved on measures of generalized cognitive function compared to control mice with no training. The researchers, who recently published this work in the prestigious journal Current Biology, imply that you can think of these tests as IQ tests for mice. In other words, working memory training seems to have actually made these mice smarter!
For training, the mice needed to simultaneously remember two maze configurations, and be able to make their way through either one. The mice then completed several tests to measure the effect of the training on their intelligence and ability to learn. The training made the mice better at tests that didn’t involve mazes at all, like learning how to avoid an unpleasant stimulus.
So, as in brain training studies in humans, the mice didn’t just get better at what they were practicing – they also became generally more intelligent. This transfer of training is the gold standard in assessing the effectiveness of brain training. Transfer implies that underlying brain systems are fundamentally changed by the learning, and it’s not just that the subject learned how to take the test.
This kind of transfer has been shown many times in human studies — including transfer from speed of processing training to driving ability, auditory processing training to memory performance, and working memory training to fluid intelligence — but, this is the first such result demonstrated in a non-human animal. This is significant for a few reasons. First of all, it implies that improvement in general cognitive function with brain training is a fundamental capacity of the mammalian brain, not just a human trait. Also, this paradigm allows for research that is difficult to perform on humans. The environment of mice can be very carefully controlled, eliminating many of the confounding variables inherent in research on humans. Researchers can breed mice to have certain characteristics and even knock out certain genes and replace them with others. This opens up the possibility of testing the effects of brain training on conditions like Alzheimer’s Disease, for which there are mouse models. Many new avenues of research are opened by the demonstration of this effect in mice.
This result represents an important milestone in study of brain training! It reinforces what we already know — the brain is highly adaptable and can be improved with training, and it gives us new avenues to explore. We’re looking forward to seeing what this team comes up with next.
Joe Hardy, PhD