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Working Memory: Mechanisms of training and development during childhood

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A growing number of studies, using different training paradigms, show that training on working memory tasks, can improve performance also of non-trained working memory tasks and that WM capacity is not a fixed characterise. This transfer can be demonstrated from training of visuo-spatial tasks to non-trained “complex” WM tasks, verbal tasks including remembering of instructions. This shows that WM capacity, in contrast to earlier believes, is possible to modify.

Cognitive training has also ignited research on the neural plasticity associated with cognitive training, with a range of methods now including animal studies with mice and monkeys, genetics, neurophysiology in non-human primates, EEG , fMRI and PET . A key question is to what extent the neural mechanisms underlying WM training are the same as those involved in development of WM capacity during childhood.

Development of WM capacity is associated with increased BOLD activity in the frontal and parietal cortex, increased white matter volume and increased fractional anisotropy (FA) in fronto-parietal connections, as well as thinning of cortex in parietal and frontal regions. These findings show the importance of the fronto-parietal network, and are consistent with studies of inter-individual differences in capacity during development. However, most of these studies are cross-sectional and has not pinpointed predictors of future development.

In two analyses of longitudinal data we aimed at finding brain signals predicting future WM in children (Ullman et al. 2014; Darki and Klingberg, 2014). BOLD signal, grey matter density and fractional anisotropy data was measured in children and adolescents aged 6-20. It found that in addition to information from behavioural testing, imaging data could provide unique information about future WM capacity. Moreover, while cross-sectional analyses related the WM capacity to fronto-parietal networks, future WM capacity was predicted from striatal activity and structure of fronto-parietal and fronto-striatal pathways. These studies show novel aspects of the dynamics of neural development. The role of the striatum in development could be similar to that shown in imaging studies of WM training and in genetic studies, which implicate the dopamine DRD2 receptors, and DAT -1 transporters that are both primarily found in the striatum.

Studying training of cognitive functions could thus be a useful tool for understanding brain plasticity during development.

This talk is part of the Chaucer Club series.

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