In older adults we see a decline in various cognitive abilities, especially in executive control functions. Research has indicated decline in processing speed, episodic memory, working memory, spatial orientation, reasoning and dual task processing. Cognitive training can slow down or reverse these declines. However, some have questioned whether or not the cognitive training can engender transfer to a variety of cognitive skills in older adults.
An oversimplified cause
The decline in cognitive abilities may be due to general slowing. However, many see this as an oversimplified explanation. Also, not all abilities seem to be declining, like selective attention and short-term memory. The abilities that show the greatest decline are those associated with cognitive control. This is where goal-directed behavior has to be flexibly maintained, monitored and implemented in face of changing memory loads, distractions, etc.
Generalization of training skills
Research indicates a limited generalizability of trained skills. When the cognitive skills are trained separately, the participants improve in the particular skill that they trained. E.g. practicing problem solving does not improve memory.
Variable priority training
Transfer to executive control functions are found when the training paradigm is variable or integrated. Variable priority training of attentional control can improve performance on dual tasks and transfer to untrained dual-tasks. This training requires the participant to rapidly change priorities between concurrently performed tasks, along with the provision of individualized adaptive performance feedback.
Videogame training is also variable and integrated. Certain videogames, especially first person shooters, are complex and variable in nature. They integrate many perceptual and cognitive skills. The skills attained during the training transfer to a wide variety of perceptual and attentional skills such as attentional blink, multiple object tracking, and even real-world complex skills (like flying an airplane).
In this study they examined if training in a complex real-time strategy game (with individualized feedback and frequent shifts in component task priority) would transfer to executive control and memory processes in older adults.
The results indicate that transfer of training is found mostly in tasks that collide with executive control functions (with the exception of mental rotation, because it is a spatial task). The positive effects of videogame training were seen in tasks where the participants had to switch from one item to another in the working memory. They were not found in the capacity of the working memory per se.
It may be possible that because a strategy based videogame was used that involves maintaining items in short term memory, going back and forth between things in a short time, and making decisions on different strategies and resources, transfer to tasks that tap into visual short term memory. Switching between objects and reasoning abilities may be seen as proximal or near transfer.
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