Cognitive training can alter the biochemistry of the brain

February 6, 2009

( -- Researchers at the Swedish medical university Karolinska Institutet have shown for the first time that the active training of the working memory brings about visible changes in the number of dopamine receptors in the human brain. The study, which is published in the prestigious scientific journal Science, was conducted with the help of PET scanning and provides deeper insight into the complex interplay between cognition and the brain's biological structure.

"Brain biochemistry doesn't just underpin our mental activity; our mental activity and thinking process can also affect the biochemistry," says Professor Torkel Klingberg, who led the study. "This hasn't been demonstrated in humans before, and opens up a floodgate of fascinating questions."

The neurotransmitter dopamine plays a key part in many of the brain's functions. Disruptions to the dopamine system can impair working memory, making it more difficult to remember information over a short period of time, such as when problem solving. Impaired working memory has, in its turn, proved to be a contributory factory to cognitive impairments in such disorders as ADHD and schizophrenia.

Professor Klingberg and his colleagues have previously shown that the working memory can be improved with a few weeks' intensive training. Through a collaborative project conducted under the Stockholm Brain Institute, the researchers have now taken a step further and monitored the brain using Positron Emission Tomography (PET scans), and have confirmed that intensive brain training leads to a change in the number of dopamine D1 receptors in the cortex.

Their results can be of significance to the development of new treatments for patients with cognitive impairments, such as those related to ADHD, stroke, chronic fatigue syndrome and ageing.

"Changes in the number of dopamine receptors in a person doesn't give us the key to poor memory," says Professor Lars Farde, one of the researchers who took part in the study. "We also have to ask if the differences could have been caused by a lack of memory training or other environmental factors. Maybe we'll be able to find new, more effective treatments that combine medication and cognitive training, in which case we're in extremely interesting territory."

Positron Emission Tomography is a medical imaging technique based on the decay of radioactive isotopes that is able to produce three-dimensional pictures of the movement of signal substances in the living body. Karolinska Institutet has been able to invest in the world's most powerful PET scanner for brain imaging thanks to a financial contribution by pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca.

Publication: "Changes in Cortical Dopamine D1 Receptor Binding Associated with Cognitive Training", Fiona McNab, Andrea Varrone, Lars Farde, Aurelija Jucaite, Paulina Bystritsky, Hans Forssberg and Torkel Klingberg, Science, 6 February 2009.

Provided by Karolinska Institutet

Explore further: Clearing the space fog

Related Stories

Clearing the space fog

October 15, 2015

The term "space fog" refers not to water droplets blocking the view in space - there's no water out there - but rather a phenomenon affecting the mental abilities of astronauts. Those who have spent time aboard the International ...

Of mice and memory: 'Working memory' of mice can be improved

March 25, 2010

Mice trained to improve their working memory become more intelligent, suggesting that similar improvements in working memory might help human beings enhance their brain power, according to research published today in Current ...

Short stressful events may improve working memory

July 23, 2009

Experiencing chronic stress day after day can produce wear and tear on the body physically and mentally, and can have a detrimental effect on learning and emotion. However, acute stress -- a short stressful incident -- may ...

Phantom images stored in flexible network throughout brain

November 3, 2010

( -- Brain research over the past 30 years has shown that if a part of the brain controlling movement or sensation or language is lost because of a stroke or injury, other parts of the brain can take over the ...

Recommended for you

How the finch changes its tune

August 3, 2015

Like top musicians, songbirds train from a young age to weed out errors and trim variability from their songs, ultimately becoming consistent and reliable performers. But as with human musicians, even the best are not machines. ...

Machine Translates Thoughts into Speech in Real Time

December 21, 2009

( -- By implanting an electrode into the brain of a person with locked-in syndrome, scientists have demonstrated how to wirelessly transmit neural signals to a speech synthesizer. The "thought-to-speech" process ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (1) Feb 13, 2009
What is memory? What is the resolution of a PET scan? What does a neurotransmitter have to do with memory?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.