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Nov 02

Society for Neuroscience 2011 (Washington D.C.)

Training on a game-like working memory task can improve visuo-spatial working memory capacity

Gigler, K.L. & Reber, P.J.

The question of transfer has emerged in studies of cognitive training that have found improvements in the trained cognitive processes, but inconsistent transfer of these improvements to other cognitive functions. Similar findings exist in the working memory (WM) literature; while domain-specific increases in WM capacity, or span, have been observed, such increases do not generalize to other domains. Because WM is known to be associated with individual differences in performance on tasks from problem solving to language comprehension, it is possible that succesfully training domain-general working memory could transfer to many other cognitive processes as well. Using a novel visuo-spatial WM training task, the current research demonstrates that working memory training can produce both general and domain-specific improvements following two hours of practice. The SISL-WM task is based on a game-like sequence learning task used to study skill learning. The task is made up of two phases, the first of which consists of the participant observing a sequence of moving visual cues across a computer screen that indicate a sequence of motor responses. After a 2-second delay interval, during which time the sequence must be held in working memory, the participant attempts to correctly replicate the cued motor response sequence. The task is adaptive in that the presented sequences increase in length as the participant improves with training and decrease in length if performance is poor, maintaining an acceptably challenging level of task difficulty. The number of cues in a given sequence is considered the participant’s current working memory span for the task. Sequences consist of either randomly ordered cues (80% of trials) or of fragments drawn from a covertly repeating 12-cue sequence (20% of trials). Participants completed 2 separate, hour-long sessions of adaptive training on the SISL-WM task. Working memory span on the task reliably increased from the beginning to end of training, improving for both random and repeated sequences. Furthermore, these individuals demonstrated significant improvement in working memory span on a different, untrained visuospatial WM task, showing some generalization of training gains. This demonstrates that the improvement in working memory span seen in training was not task-specific and benefitted viuospatial working memory more generally. These results indicate the viability of this visuospatial working memory task as a training task, and further suggest that training of working memory can indeed lead to generalizable cognitive improvement.

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