Report from an International Conference on Improving A Key Function of the Mind

Report from an International Conference on 
Improving A Key Function of the Mind

During April 24-26, 2014, professionals and neuroscientists gathered from Australia, Sweden, the Netherlands, Canada, and the United States to review the latest developments in training the mind to improve attention and ability to complete tasks.  I was honored to be one of the speakers, and was very pleased to join a rather impressive group.

The program is called Cogmed Working Memory Training (CWMT), and as the name suggests it is designed to measurably expand capacity of the mind in one of its most important functions, working memory.

Our minds do three things with information- we take in information, we understand information, and then we use our understanding to achieve all our tasks.  Take in, understand, execute.  Working memory is how the mind translates understanding into actually accomplished tasks.  Specifically, your working memory capacity is the amount of information you can hold in your mind at one moment, and do something with that information.   For example, if you asked someone to complete a 4 part assignment, with each part due the 3rd Tuesday of the next 4 months, you would need working memory to have a way to put a plan together to do so, and to execute each of the steps of the plan.

Through the work of Dr. Susan Gathercole, we know that a significant portion of children who struggle in school and find it hard to focus and get work done, have a deficit of working memory.

At this Conference, we were pleased to hear from Dr. Torkel Klingberg, who is a very highly regarded neuroscientist, from Stockholm.  Dr. Klingberg and his lab developed a program designed to actually change the capacity of someone's working memory.  Their success is one of the first instances in which an exercise has been proven to alter a fundamental property of how our mind's work.  We learned that the Cogmed program now has over 40 peer-reviewed papers reviewing the proof that it works in print, with over 90 on the way.  Cogmed really stands alone as a breakthrough technology, an intervention with a solid, proven, product of carefully designed science.

Over a many year period, Dr. Klingberg and his colleagues in Sweden and around the world have studied just what is working memory, its actual impact on the way we do our work, and how it can be improved.

At the Conference, Dr. Klingberg described a new line of research, namely, just how does the human mind develop its abilities to think?  We all marvel at the transformation of a newborn into a thoughtful, effective student, and the field of child development is rich with observations, theories, and recommendations.  But until very recently, we have no tools to actually look at the nerves of the brain and physically describe, just what happens that allows the brain of a newborn to transform, to develop.   Dr. Klingberg presented exciting new findings that describe how new connections across circuits that are now being defined actually make that transformation happen.  As this work proceeds in his lab, and around the world, we may one day soon actually understand how intelligence develops, and how we might improve our development.

The Conference was kicked off by a rousing speech by Dr. Ed Hollowell, a doctor who has written extensively on ADHD.  His message was very upbeat and reassuring.  He views ADHD as a gift with challenges rather than a disability.  He notes that the mind of the person with ADHD is like a Ferrari with faulty brakes.  It is loaded with creativity, innovation, energy, but if not managed and guided, can lead to trouble.

We also heard from researchers on the emerging impact of working memory training to help people across a wide range of needs, from helping those with traumatic brain injury recover cognitive function, to helping athletes improve their skills.  One neuropsychologist from Palo Alto,California discussed with me his studies on the impact of chemotherapy on thinking, how it often clouds the mind.   It is now known that a significant mechanism for this side effect is the impact of chemotherapy on working memory.  One person he was helping was so severely affected that he had trouble working and even speaking clearly.  He helped the person complete a Cogmed training and 3 months later had trouble recognizing his client's voice on the phone- he was speaking clearly and was able to start working again.

The research on the impact of Cogmed has remained very steady over the years.  It is a 5 week training course of cognitive exercises on your home computer, about one hour a day for 5 days a week, for a total of 25 training sessions.  The evidence is very solid that 80% of those who do this training will experience a roughly 33% improvement of their working memory function.   Again, this is the first instance in which an intervention has reliably achieved a significant improvement in a key capacity of thinking.   We also heard reports establishing that improving working memory alleviates symptoms of inattention and poor focus.

I was honored to present, with my colleague Mr. Gary Showalter, our experiences in making Cogmed working memory training available to our practice and community, and our experiences were very well received.

The Conference ended with a reminder to me that neuroscience is in a state of exciting discovery.  We are living in an era in which the complexities of how the brain actually works are being richly explored, with powerful insights emerging to help.  It is an honor to be part of this scientific journey, and to help translate these new findings into actual steps to make a difference.

Dr. Arthur Lavin

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