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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Benefits of Increasing Working Memory

In an earlier post, I summarized some Japanese research showing that working memory capacity can be increased in young children and that such increase even improves IQ. Accumulating evidence seems to indicate that working memory, with proper training, can be improved in anyone, even adults. Improved working memory results in improved attention (recall my other posts about how the main memory problem in aging is usually not memory per se but poor attentiveness), better reasoning ability, and better self control.

I recently found a paper in which lasting increases in brain function were produced in healthy adults by only 5 weeks of practice on three working-memory tasks that involved the location of objects in space. Subjects performed 90 trials per day on a training regimen (CogMed) and MRI scans showed increased activity in the cortical areas that were involved in processing the visual stimuli. Brain activity increases in these areas appeared within the first week and grew over time.

Similar results have been reported by other investigators. In a few cases, where different kinds of stimuli were used, memory training induced a decrease of brain activity in certain areas, which is interpreted to indicate that the trained brain did not have to work as hard.

While we clearly don’t understand things very well, it seems clear that working memory training not only improves memory capability but also causes lasting changes in the brain.


Olesen, P. J., Westerberg, H., and Kingberg, T. 2004. Increased prefrontal and parietal activity after training of working memory. Nature Neuroscience. 7: 75-79.