When studying the human brain, biologists and neurologists have found it useful to divide the organ into various regions — the cerebellum, for instance, or the frontal lobe, or the part that remembers the lyrics to 1980s pop songs.
Those different regions have been associated with various functions — the cerebellum coordinates muscle movement and balance, for instance. But they also frequently work together, sending electrical impulses back and forth between regions. The regions of the brain essentially constitute a biological network. When the circuits connecting those regions decline, deteriorate, or get damaged, cognitive function is impaired. This is often what happens to people who suffer strokes or develop conditions like Alzheimer's. But if we could restore those damaged connections, we could potentially improve cognitive function in patients.
That's the idea behind recent advances in brain science that propose to strengthen and repair these organic brain circuits by way of brain exercises. In research published today in the journal Cerebral Cortex, scientists in Japan describe a new approach to this kind of therapy using a common brain activity sensor known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
In a series of experiments, neuroscientists used fMRI brain scanners to monitor electrical impulses moving back and forth between two specified regions of the brain. Test subjects then performed a series of computer exercises and games.
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When certain actions within the game triggered increased electrical activity, the subjects were encouraged to repeat those tasks by earning monetary rewards. By repeating the same tasks or similar tasks over and over, the test subjects were able to essentially boost their own brainpower by “exercising” very specific connective tissues in the brain.
The technique, known as “functional connectivity neurofeedback training,” could potentially help doctors treat patients with a wide variety of brain function issues, according to the research team.
“Functional connectivity in the brain is one of the most interesting topics in current neuroscience,” said Hiroshi Imamizu of the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International at the University of Tokyo and a co-author of the paper. “This technique could be applied to any type of brain disease caused by abnormality in functional connectivity.”
Imamizu said the new brain training system could potentially help people with Alzheimer’s disease, psychiatric disorders, or complications from a stroke.
“Our group has also confirmed the effectiveness of our methods in a therapeutic treatment for major depression, and this result will soon be published,” Imamizu said.
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One significant upside of the training technique is that it can target specific connections in the brain that need strengthening, Imamizu said. Other kinds of treatment for brain disorders, like drugs or cognitive therapy, affect the brain as a whole.
Another upside is the relatively low cost of the treatment.
“This is a training technique and brain exercises using only fMRI and a set of tasks,” Imamizu said. “We did not use any medicines or biotechnology devices.”
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