Push It: A Deeper Look into How Challenging Activities Can Change Older Brains

Last year, InvestigAge reported on the initial findings from a study titled the Synapse Project , which showed that older adults who engaged in highly challenging cognitive tasks (digital photography and quilting) showed significant improvements on cognitive tests compared with adults doing less challenging activities (socializing or doing less complex tasks). A more recent report from this project looks more closely at a subset of the study’s participants in order to determine how the brain changed in these older adults after learning their new skills, as well as whether the changes persisted a year later. The researchers originally reported that when they split all 221 participants (average age of 72) into groups that were assigned high- and low-challenging activities, those participants who took part in high-challenge tasks performed better on tests of episodic memory (memory of past events).  In their new follow-up article, the researchers looked at a 39-person subset of the original participants. Immediately before and after the initial 14-week program, these 39 individuals were administered fMRIs while doing cognitive tests that consisted of a mix of difficult and easy tasks. At the beginning of the study, there were no significant changes between the high- and low-challenge groups; however, after the program concluded, there were significant differences observed in the high-challenge group that were not seen in the other group. What was being compared was the difference in areas of the brain when performing difficult tasks compared to easy tasks. In all, five areas of the brain were significantly different between the groups. These areas have been associated with concept and object processing, attention, and executive functioning. Previous research has shown that some of these areas show significant age-related decline as individuals age.

The researchers looked into the reasons behind the differences between the groups and found that the high-challenge group was more efficiently processing the easy items on the cognitive tasks while in the fMRI. This led them to suggest that “rather than recruiting new brain regions, older adults [in the high challenge group] seem to be more efficient in how they utilize their existing neural resources.”

The researchers also examined the impact of the time spent on the tasks during the program. While high-challenge participants were required to commit at least 15 hours a week to the new skills they learned, some put in significantly more time and this additional time on the tasks also resulted in greater brain changes. The researchers also looked at the impact of age as well, and found greater brain changes among older participants in four of the five areas covered. Further analysis revealed that these greater changes were due to there being greater room for improvement in the older participants.

In order to determine whether the observed brain changes were related to cognitive changes, the researchers looked at the relationship of the brain changes to cognitive performance on a number of tasks. While the smaller number of individuals in the study’s fMRI component made it more difficult to detect differences between groups, the researchers found that the amount of observed increase in verbal fluency tasks for the high-challenge group was significantly correlated with the amount of observed changes in these individuals’ brains.

When 26 of the participants received fMRIs a year later, the researchers found that in some but not all of the brain areas, the impact of participating in the high-challenge group was maintained. For the high-challenge group, there were still significant differences in some areas of the brain compared to the start of the study, but there were not significant differences between their brains at the end of the study and one year later. In other areas of the brain, there was a drop-off in the degree of change between the end of the training and the follow-up fMRI one year later, to varying degrees depending on the area. This suggests that for these areas of the brain, continued engagement may be necessary to maintain cognitive improvement, or that a greater amount of training is needed to create more long-lasting effects in those areas of the brain.

Following the presentation of these results, the researchers concluded that “This finding is consistent with the idea that interventions can restore levels of brain activity to a more youth-like state.” They further note that this study provides support for the “use it or lose it” hypothesis of cognitive aging. For professionals in aging services, this research also suggests the importance of providing cognitively challenging programming, as the researchers write that “we are cautiously optimistic with respect to the possibility that age-related cognitive declines can be slowed or even partially restored if individuals are exposed to sustained mentally challenging experiences.” Furthermore, this study shows that to produce changes in the brain, cognitive engagement need not be in the form of brain games and memory drills. Learning challenging, productive skills that might be of greater interest and appeal to older adults can produce measurable changes in cognition and the brain.



McDonough IM, Haber S, Bischof GN, et al. The Synapse Project: Engagement in Mentally Challenging Activities Enhances Neural Efficiency. Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience (2015); 33(6): 865–882.

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