Changes in cortical activity after training of working memory – a single-subject analysis

Institution: Karolinska Institute

Title: Changes in cortical activity after training of working memory – a single-subject analysis

Researcher(s): H. Westerberg, T. Klingberg

Program: Cogmed RM

Published: Physiology and Behavior, May 2007

Working memory (WM) capacity is an important factor for a wide range of cognitive skills. This capacity has generally been assumed to be fixed. However, recent studies have suggested that WM can be improved by intensive, computerized training [Klingberg T, Fernell E, Olesen P, Johnson M, Gustafsson P, Dahlström K, et al. Computerized training of working memory in children with ADHD — a randomized, controlled trial. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psych 2005;44:177–86]. A recent study by Olesen, Westerberg and Klingberg [Olesen P, Westerberg H, Klingberg T. Increased prefrontal and parietal brain activity after training of working memory. Nat Neurosci 2004;7:75–9] showed that group analysis of brain activity data show increases in prefrontal and parietal cortices after WM training. In the present study we performed single-subject analysis of the changes in brain activity after five weeks of training.

Three young, healthy adults participated in the study. On two separate days before practice and during one day after practice, brain activity was measured with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during performance of a WM and a baseline task. Practice on the WM tasks gradually improved performance and this effect lasted several months. The effect of practice also generalized to improve performance on a non-trained WM task and a reasoning task. After training, WM-related brain activity was significantly increased in the middle and inferior frontal gyrus. The changes in activity were not due to activations of any additional area that was not activated before training. Instead, the changes could best be described by small increases in the extent of the area of activated cortex. The effect of training of WM is thus in several respects similar to the changes in the functional map observed in primate studies of skill learning, although the physiological effect in WM training is located in the prefrontal association cortex.