RE­SIST­ING THE URGE TO BE A SUDOKU DROPOUT

Neu­ropsy­chol­ogy Lab­o­ra­tory at uOttawa is re­cruit­ing par­tic­i­pants for re­search on brain train­ing. We are look­ing for adults aged 60+.

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It is March 22, 2016, and I have just fin­ished the pre­lim­i­nary ses­sion for a uOttawa neu­ropsy­chol­ogy study on brain train­ing for adults 60-plus.

I’ve spent nearly two hours do­ing men­tal ex­er­cises and an­swer­ing ques­tions on forms about my men­tal and phys­i­cal health. Boy, do I feel dumb. I an­swered “not at all” when asked if I ever do Sudoku or other brain games like Lu­mos­ity. I guess I should have been do­ing them.

I was lousy at de­cid­ing which coloured shapes went best with oth­ers, me­moriz­ing long lines of words and num­bers, and re­mem­ber­ing which words were in two sep­a­rate lists. I like to think I have good “emo­tional” mem­ory; I re­mem­ber what peo­ple I know did, wore and said. I do not re­mem­ber their phone num­bers.

The stated pur­pose of the study was to eval­u­ate the neu­ral and be­havioural ef­fects of a com­puter-train­ing pro­gram in adults. It will be in­ter­est­ing to see if my abil­i­ties im­prove.

My par­tic­i­pa­tion is re­quired at least five times a week for 40-minute com­puter ses­sions at home for five weeks, once a week at the lab at uOttawa, plus two assess­ment ses­sions at the uni­ver­sity, one be­fore be­gin­ning and one after the com­puter ses­sions are com­plete.

The next ses­sion is, ap­pro­pri­ately, on April Fool’s Day at 1 p.m., when I do my first stress­ful Sudoku ses­sion in the uOttawa lab un­der su­per­vi­sion.

I con­tinue with 40-minute Sudoku games on my home com­puter and then re­turn to the uni­ver­sity April 8 for an­other lab ses­sion. I don’t feel I’m get­ting any bet­ter, but Raphaelle Ro­bidoux of the Neu­ropsy­chol­ogy Lab­o­ra­tory of the School of Psy­chol­ogy seems pleased.

The weeks go on, and to my ab­so­lute sur­prise, about half way through my five weeks, I ac­tu­ally im­prove at Sudoku! I move my­self up from Easy to Medium and I ex­pe­ri­ence the Ping! of suc­cess as the gold coins pour down on the screen.

The Sudoku train­ing is done, and I re­turn at 10 a.m. on May 9 for the fol­lowup test­ing. I won­der if I’ll be any bet­ter at the ex­er­cises. But no mat­ter what, I’m proud that I wasn’t a Sudoku School dropout.

I think I was a bit bet­ter on the ex­er­cises, but what re­ally sur­prised me was that a few days after the study was fin­ished, I was much bet­ter at Sudoku. The uOttawa games web­site was still open, and my pass­word still worked. I could go in and play Sudoku, and sud­denly it was all click­ing to­gether, al­though too late for the study.

The study by Dr. Sheida Rabipour and Dr. Pa­trick David­son was called “Neu­ropy­scho­log­i­cal in­flu­ences on cog­ni­tive train­ing in ag­ing,” and they have just re­leased their re­sults.

They said that the mo­ti­va­tion for their study was that de­spite an es­ti­mated 36 mil­lion in­di­vid­u­als af­fected by de­men­tia, treat­ment op­tions are nev­er­the­less scarce and lim­ited in ef­fec­tive­ness. A promis­ing al­ter­na­tive in­volved train­ing cog­ni­tive func­tions, in­clud­ing mem­ory and at­ten­tion. De­spite the prom­ise of brain train­ing, some stud­ies have found con­tra­dic­tory ef­fects and some have shown that brain train­ing does not ben­e­fit thought and be­hav­iour, or that any ben­e­fits are tem­po­rary.

There­fore they wanted to bet­ter un­der­stand the be­havioural ef­fects of a par­tic­u­lar brain train­ing pro­gram that had a promis­ing de­sign, and they wanted to study the im­pact of that pro­gram com­bined with the im­pact of peo­ple’s per­cep­tion of the pro­gram on men­tal func­tion and well-be­ing.

All par­tic­i­pants were placed in one of four groups that re­ceived spe­cific in­ter­ven­tions. When the study had been com­pleted, it showed sim­i­lar per­for­mances on their tests of mem­ory and cog­ni­tive per­for­mance, as well as self-re­ported per­cep­tions of per­for­mance and well-be­ing in all groups. When there was some im­prove­ment after train­ing (com­pared to base­line) it was sim­i­lar in all groups, and of­ten those im­prove­ments were not sta­tis­ti­cally mean­ing­ful.

Over­all, they did not find a great ben­e­fit of train­ing with ei­ther pro­gram or of re­ceiv­ing any kind of in­for­ma­tion be­fore­hand in the con­text of that study. They did note that in gen­eral, all of their par­tic­i­pants were highly ed­u­cated, highly mo­ti­vated and in rel­a­tively good health, with habits and life­styles al­ready align­ing with their rec­om­men­da­tions for suc­cess­ful ag­ing.

While the re­sults they have shared are pre­lim­i­nary, they have just com­pleted a fol­lowup study look­ing at other out­comes, in­clud­ing pat­terns of elec­tri­cal brain ac­tiv­ity. They hope to have the first re­sults of that study an­a­lyzed within the up­com­ing months.

As an­other re­source, there’s a forth­com­ing book on brain train­ing that Dr. Rabipour wrote with Dr. Amir Raz, a pro­fes­sor at McGill Uni­ver­sity and UC Irvine. It is called “How (Not) to Train the Brain” and is cur­rently in pro­duc­tion at Ox­ford Uni­ver­sity Press and ex­pected to be re­leased late 2018 or early 2019.

If you’d like more in­for­ma­tion or to take part in a fu­ture study at the Neu­ropsy­chol­ogy Lab­o­ra­tory at the uOttawa School of Psy­chol­ogy, email neu­ropsy­chol­o­gy­lab.nict@ uottawa.ca.

Dr. Sheida Rabipour pre­sent­ing early re­sults of the neu­ropy­scho­log­i­cal study, part of which in­volved mon­i­tor­ing sub­jects’ im­prove­ment in brain games such as Sudoku.

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