Adults of all ages see gains after training working memory

Research institutionKarolinska Institute

Research title: Computerized training of working memory – A new method for improving cognition in aging

Researchers: Westerberg, H., Brehmer, Y., D´Hondt, N., Söderman, D., Bäckman, L.

Training program used in research: Cogmed QM

Presented: Poster presented at the annual meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society (CNS), April 2008

Researchers at the Karolinska Institute investigated whether Cogmed Working Memory Training enhanced working memory (WM) and cognitive functioning in younger and older adults – not just on laboratory measures of performance but in ways that individuals notice in their daily lives.
Fifty-five younger adults (20-30 years old) and 45 older adults (60-70 years old) were recruited from the general population and were not pre-screened for ADHD or WM impairments. Participants were randomly assigned to receive five weeks of active Cogmed Working Memory Training or a placebo training intervention. In the adaptive training group, the difficulty level of the training tasks continually adjusted to match the individual’s performance. For example, if an adult correctly recalled a sequence of five digits on two successive trials, the next trial would require them to recall six digits. If two successive trials were failed, the number of digits presented in the next trial would diminish by one. This procedure challenged individuals to perform at a level that matched their best possible performance. Examples of different training exercises that were used can be seen at In the placebo group, the difficulty level did not increase to match performance. As a result, participants’ WM was not challenged over time and improvements in WM were not expected to occur. Before and immediately after the five-week training laboratory measures of WM (ie., Digit Span and Span Board Task), attention (ie., PASAT), as well as participants’ ratings of their cognitive functioning in their daily lives (ie., CFQ) were collected.

Findings from this study indicated that adaptive training was associated with significant gains in non-trained WM tasks for younger and older adults. Overall, WM gains were greatest among the younger adaptive training group. Older adults who had undergone adaptive training made gains in WM, attention and decreased cognitive symptoms that brought them to the level of the 20 -30 year olds who had performed non-adaptive training. Data collected three months after training also indicated that these gains were maintained.

Summary and Implications
Cogmed Working Memory Training provided benefits to younger and older adults that were noticed in their daily functioning. In addition to the behavioral findings presented in this poster, two additional papers have emerged from this study examining the neural correlates of training-related gains using fMRI (submitted) and investigating how WM plasticity is modulated by the dopamine (D1) transporter genotype (Brehmer et al., 2009).