A Study of Cognitive Skills and the Brain

A Study of Cognitive Skills and the Brain

IWithin the last decade there has been an increasing awareness of the relationship between learning and cognitive skills. The term “cognitive skill” refers to any mental skill that is used in the process of acquiring knowledge, including attention, working memory, reasoning, perception, intuition, planning, and so forth.

Recognizing the required interplay of cognitive skills to the learning process has led to questions, such as (1) can improving cognitive skills improve learning ability, (2) do cognitive skill deficits contribute to learning difficulties, and (3) when learning difficulties are present, can cognitive skills be improved such that learning ability improves?

Scientific studies as well as anecdotal reports suggest that the answer to all three questions can be yes. As a result numerous cognitive skills training programs have become commercially available. Often, these programs will offer some type of cognitive testing from which cognitive skill deficits can be identified. Afterwards, a regime of cognitive exercises designed to strengthen identified deficits is provided. Similar to athletic exercise, the success of cognitive skills training programs relates to the effort put in.

The National Science Foundation (NSF), recognizing the potential benefits of improving general learning ability, is currently funding a $1 million research project designed to assess the effect of cognitive skills training programs on cognitive skill level. In part this study will also investigate if changes in brain structure and function can be seen following cognitive skills training classes.

For this study, cognitive skills training classes have been incorporated into a normal high-school curriculum such that students participate in cognitive skills training 1-hour a day, 5-days a week, and for 19-weeks. Also, two methods of administering cognitive skills training are being assessed. The first involves one to one instruction, i.e. a cognitive skills trainer instructs a student individually on the cognitive skills exercises. The second utilizes an online cognitive skills training course where students independently complete the cognitive skills exercises on a computer, however, a facilitator is in the room to ensure students are working on the cognitive exercises. To track brain changes, functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scans, which are non-invasive and do not involve ionizing radiation, are acquired before and after participation in the 19-week cognitive skills training programs. Approximately 200 students are participating in the study. Forty of these underwent and initial fMRI scan and will complete the post fMRI scan in June.

Preliminary work by the primary investigators of this project found that in a group of middle school students studied, students with higher cognitive ability utilized parts of their brain differently than those with lesser cognitive ability. “The students who were of quote higher intelligence used the part of the brain we’re interested in differently. On the easier task, they didn’t really use their brains. On the harder tasks, their brains lit up. With the lower group, we started seeing the activation of their brain on the easier tasks.” The investigators are eager to see if cognitive skills training can actually make the cognitive tasks easier for the lower ability students and if they can do more of the cognitive testing before their brain activates.

Researchers hope to have the results of the study published by the end of 2012.

The researchers also believe this study will have implications for all learners, including those with special needs.

About Author