Neuroplasticity: how the brain is capable of change
Scientists have historically believed that once a person reaches adulthood, their cognitive abilities are immutable. But beginning in the early twentieth century, that theory has been contested by evidence suggesting that the brain’s abilities are in fact malleable and plastic. According to this principle of neuroplasticity, the brain is constantly changing in response to various experiences. New behaviors, new learnings, environmental changes, and physical injuries may all stimulate the brain to create new neural pathways or reorganize existing ones, fundamentally altering how information is processed.
Mapping changes in taxi drivers’ brains
One of the most dramatic examples of neuroplasticity at work comes from a 2000 brain scan study on London taxi drivers (Maguire et al., 2000). In order to earn a license, London taxi drivers typically spend about two years learning to navigate the city’s serpentine streets. What mark, the study’s researchers wondered, did this long, rigorous period of training leave on taxi drivers’ brains?
Under the scrutiny of fMRI scans, 16 male taxi drivers were revealed to have larger hippocampuses than a control group of 50 healthy males. And the longer the time spent as a taxi driver, the larger the hippocampus tended to be. As a brain area involved in memory and navigation, the hippocampus seemed to have changed in response to the taxi drivers’ experiences.
Most instances of neuroplasticity-based changes in the brain are much more subtle. But in recent decades, it’s cases like that of the London taxi drivers that have inspired members of the scientific community to pursue the next logical step in research: rather than passively waiting to see how the brain might respond to circumstances, is it possible to direct that capacity for change, targeting improvements in specific abilities?
The expanding field of cognitive training
The science of cognitive training seeks to answer this question. In 2013 alone, 30 cognitive training studies were registered on the government database ClinicalTrials.gov. Lumosity scientists, with the help of outside collaborators, contribute to this research effort: so far, 9 peer reviewed studies have been published using Lumosity as a cognitive training tool for diverse populations, including healthy adults, cancer survivors, elderly people, and children with a genetic disorder.
From lab to laptop: the roots of Lumosity games
Neuroscience research has found that certain types of activities may impact the brain more than others (Mechelli et al., 2004; Gaser and Schlaug, 2003; Draganski et al., 2006). It’s believed that as an activity is repeated, the brain tends to fall back on the same set of existing neural pathways. To continue changing, the brain must be exposed to novel, adaptive experiences that challenge it to work in new ways.
Drawing on this idea, Lumosity is designed to give each person a set of exercises that challenge their cognitive abilities.
From cognitive task to engaging game
Lumosity “games” are based on a combination of common cognitive and neuropsychological tasks, many of which have been used in research for decades, and new tasks designed by an in-house science team. Working with experienced game designers, Lumosity neuroscientists have transformed these tasks into over 40 challenging, adaptive games.
The popular Color Match, for example, is Lumosity’s adaption of the Stroop Task, a cognitive task published on in 1935 as a way to study impulse control. And Lost in Migration is based on the Flanker Task, a 1974 tool designed to help researchers investigate selective attention. Each game has been carefully redesigned to include engaging mechanics and enjoyable graphics that keep a player challenged over many sessions.
Designed to feel like a personal trainer
Lumosity’s game-based training program is designed to expose your brain to increasingly harder challenges, adapting game difficulty to your individual ability level. In time, you’ll also encounter new games. Modelled from the concept of a physical personal trainer, Lumosity pushes you to operate at the limits of your abilities and stay challenged.
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Mechelli, A., Crinion, J. T., Noppeney, U., O’Doherty, J., Ashburner, J., Frackowiak, R. S., & Price, C.J. (2004). Neurolinguistics: Structural plasticity in the bilingual brain. Nature, 431, 757.
Gaser, C. & Schlaug, G. (2003). Brain structures differ between musicians and non-musicians. Journal of Neuroscience, 23(27), 9240-9245.
Draganski, B., Gaser, C., Kempermann, G., Kuhn, H. G., Winkler, J., Büchel, C., & May, A (2006). Temporal and spatial dynamics of brain structure changes during extensive learning. Journal of Neuroscience, 26(23), 6314-6317.
Maguire, E. A., Gadian, D. G., Johnsrude, I. S., Good, C. D., Ashburner, J., Frackowiak, R. S. J., & Frith, C. D. (2000). Navigation-related structural change in the hippocampi of taxi drivers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 97(8), 4398-4403.