Centre for Brain Research - The University of Auckland



Recent papers in Frontiers and TICS about common flaws in cognitive training experiments:

http://journal.frontiersin.org/Journal/10.3389/fnsys.2014.00161/full               http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1364661314000813
See also our latest experimental paper in Acta Psychologica:
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0001691815000323

Background

I am interested in the interaction between sensorimotor experience and cognition. Based on various tools and techniques, ranging from traditional cognitive measurements to fMRI, tDCS, biomarker tracking and advanced modeling, my work suggests that 
sensorimotor experience significantly shapes cognitive processes, with robust effects on spatial ability and working memory. I have further explored the underlying processes of such alterations, via experimental designs involving motor experts and novices. More recently, this line of research has led to the implementation of cognitive training programs based on motor training, in a novel approach departing from traditional cognitive training work.

Cognitive enhancement via behavioral training

Can brain function be enhanced via training? Recent evidence suggests that cognitive abilities can be improved through various non-invasive behavioral regimens, including cognitive training and physical exercise. This field of research is exciting, with obvious applications to clinical and non-clinical populations. However, a close look at the current cognitive training literature shows that although this trend is promising, it also faces many challenges. For example, a recent paper suggests sampling error as a potential source of discrepancies in the training literature; while another emphasizes common fallacious assumptions as an explanation for some of the disagreements. More generally, we still do not understand fully what cognitive enhancement means, beyond improvements on tasks that have been designed to assess performance at a given point in time rather than to measure progress. Importantly, these discrepancies do not refute the core idea and the potential benefits of cognitive enhancement, but rather emphasize the need to better understand the underlying mechanisms of cognitive gains.

Toward integrated approaches

Two main behavioral approaches have emerged in the cognitive enhancement paradigm, based on cognitive training and physical exercise, respectively. Both have demonstrated promising findings, but still lack clear transfer to a wide variety of tasks (see here for an example in the spatial domain). Building upon these lines of work, we have proposed a novel approach, based on complex motor training, an integrated blend of physical and cognitive demands. Motor activities with high cognitive demands can be optimized to enhance cognition, with limited risks in terms of ratio involvement/reward. They allow the integration of novelty, diversity and complexity within single regimens, thus ensuring maximal ecological validity and meaningful transfer. Besides cognitive improvements, well-designed motor activities can also induce important health benefits, supported by decades of research on physical exercise. In line with this idea, our latest experimental findings demonstrate that combining physical and cognitive demands within ad hoc activities represents an optimal way to target wide and general improvements in general health and cognition.