A new research study at the University of Cambridge shows training on a computer application can improve attention and concentration. Scientists say the new “brain training” game could help individuals deal with daily distractions in a busy world.

Experts note that multitasking demands associated with the need to rapidly respond to email or text, and the challenge of working on multiple projects simultaneously, has led young people, including students, to have more problems with sustaining attention.

This difficulty in focusing attention and concentrating is made worse by stress from a global environment that never sleeps and also frequent travel leading to jet lag and poor quality sleep.

“We’ve all experienced coming home from work feeling that we’ve been busy all day, but unsure what we actually did,” says Professor Barbara Sahakian from the Department of Psychiatry.

“Most of us spend our time answering emails, looking at text messages, searching social media, trying to multitask. But instead of getting a lot done, we sometimes struggle to complete even a single task and fail to achieve our goal for the day.

“Then we go home, and even there we find it difficult to ‘switch off’ and read a book or watch TV without picking up our smartphones. For complex tasks we need to get in the ‘flow’ and stay focused.”

In recent years, as smartphones have become ubiquitous, there has been a growth in the number of so-called brain training apps that claim to improve cognitive skills such as memory, numerical skills and concentration.

Researchers from the Behavioral and Clinical Neuroscience Institute at the University of Cambridge, have now developed and tested Decoder, a new game aimed at helping users improve their attention and concentration.

In the new study, Sahakian and colleague Dr. George Savulich have demonstrated that playing Decoder on an iPad for eight hours over one month improves attention and concentration. This form of attention activates a frontal-parietal network in the brain.

For the research, investigators divided 75 healthy young adults into three groups: one group received Decoder, one control group played Bingo for the same amount of time and a second control group received no game. Participants in the first two groups were invited to attend eight one-hour sessions over the course of a month during which they played either Decoder or Bingo under supervision.

All 75 participants were tested at the start of the trial and then after four weeks using the CANTAB Rapid Visual Information Processing test (RVP). CANTAB RVP has been demonstrated in previously published studies to be a highly sensitive test of attention/concentration.

Results from the study showed a significant difference in attention as measured by the RVP. Those who played Decoder were better than those who played Bingo and those who played no game.

The difference in performance was significant and meaningful as it was comparable to effects seen using stimulants, such as methylphenidate, or nicotine. The former, also known as Ritalin, is a common treatment for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

To ensure that Decoder improved focused attention and concentration without impairing the ability to shift attention, the researchers also tested participants’ ability on the Trail Making Test.

Decoder performance also improved on this commonly used neuropsychological test of attentional shifting. During this test, participants have to first attend to numbers and then shift their attention to letters and then shift back to numbers.

Additionally, participants enjoyed playing the game, and motivation remained high throughout the 8 hours of game play.

Said Sahakian, “Many people tell me that they have trouble focusing their attention. Decoder should help them improve their ability to do this.

“In addition to healthy people, we hope that the game will be beneficial for patients who have impairments in attention, including those with ADHD or traumatic brain injury. We plan to start a study with traumatic brain injury patients this year.”

Savulich added, “Many brain training apps on the market are not supported by rigorous scientific evidence. Our evidence-based game is developed interactively and the games developer, Tom Piercy, ensures that it is engaging and fun to play. The level of difficulty is matched to the individual player and participants enjoy the challenge of the cognitive training.”

The game has now been licensed through Cambridge Enterprise, the technology transfer arm of the University of Cambridge, to app developer Peak, which specializes in evidence-based “brain training” apps.

This will allow Decoder to become accessible to the public. Peak has developed a version for Apple devices and has released the game as part of the Peak Brain Training app.

The company plans to make a version available for Android devices later this year.

Source: University of Cambridge