Transfer after Dual n-Back Training Depends on Striatal Activation Change

Tiina Salminen, Simone Kühn, Peter A Frensch, Torsten Schubert
Journal of Neuroscience 2016 September 28, 36 (39): 10198-213

UNLABELLED: The dual n-back working memory (WM) training paradigm (comprising auditory and visual stimuli) has gained much attention since studies have shown widespread transfer effects. By including a multimodal dual-task component, the task is demanding to the human cognitive system. We investigated whether dual n-back training improves general cognitive resources or a task-specific WM updating process in participants. We expected: (1) widespread transfer effects and the recruitment of a common neuronal network by the training and the transfer tasks and (2) narrower transfer results and that a common activation network alone would not produce transfer, but instead an activation focus on the striatum, which is associated with WM updating processes. The training group showed transfer to an untrained dual-modality WM updating task, but not to single-task versions of the training or the transfer task. They also showed diminished neuronal overlap between the training and the transfer task from pretest to posttest and an increase in striatal activation in both tasks. Furthermore, we found an association between the striatal activation increase and behavioral improvement. The control groups showed no transfer and no change in the amount of activation overlap or in striatal activation from pretest to posttest. We conclude that, instead of improving general cognitive resources (which would have required a transfer effect to all transfer tasks and that a frontal activation overlap between the tasks produced transfer), dual n-back training improved a task-specific process: WM updating of stimuli from two modalities.

SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT: The current study allows for a better understanding of the cognitive and neural effects of working memory (WM) training and transfer. It shows that dual n-back training mainly improves specific processes of WM updating, and this improvement leads to narrow transfer effects to tasks involving the same processes. On a neuronal level this is accompanied by increased neural activation in the striatum that is related to WM updating. The current findings challenge the view that dual n-back training provokes a general boosting of the WM system and of its neural underpinnings located in frontoparietal brain regions. Instead, the findings imply the relevance of task-specific brain regions which are involved in important cognitive processes during training and transfer tasks.

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