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Cognition and perception, Mental health

Working memory training could help beat anxiety

Researcher says implications of improving attentional control are enormous in education and clinical science.

01 February 2016

By Christian Jarrett

One thing anxiety does is to upset your brain’s balance between focus and vigilance. Your control over what you pay attention to is sacrificed at the expense of worrisome thoughts and a rapid response to any potential danger.

If this account is true, basic attention training should help, putting you back in charge of your own mind. A key component of attentional control is working memory – our ability to juggle task-relevant information in mind over short-periods of time. In a new paper in Biological Psychology, a team led by Nazanin Derakshan at Birkbeck, University of London, has tested whether computer-based working memory training can reduce anxiety.

The training involved a kind of task that often features in “brain training” games where it’s marketed as a way to become cleverer or more successful. In psychology it’s known as the established dual n-back task, and the researchers used a version that got progressively harder as participants improved (try it online).

Specifically, 13 young, anxious student participants had to listen to streams of letters and simultaneously look at a changing grid of squares, and press a key whenever the current letter or highlighted square was the same as the one that occurred a certain number of items earlier in the stream. The difficulty of the task was intensified by requiring the participant to compare the current square and letter with items further back. They completed 15 days of 30-minutes/day of this training. A control group of 13 anxious students spent the same time on an easy version of the task that didn’t vary in difficulty as they improved, so it was unlikely to boost their working memory abilities.

Before and after the training, all the students completed a series of measures of their anxiety and their ability to perform under stress.

The working memory training group showed improvements (not only on the n-back task) but also in their performance during “safe” and stressful trials of what’s known as the flanker task – this involves responding to the direction of a target arrow while ignoring distracter arrows pointing the other way. During stressful trials the researchers blasted the participants with white noise. The control group only showed improvements during the safe trials, not the more difficult stressful trials.

The training group, but not the control group, also showed changes to their brain waves (recorded via electroencephalography) – specifically they exhibited a reduced ratio of theta to beta frequency waves while they were resting. This is a neural sign that they were more relaxed. In the training group, those who showed the biggest improvements in working memory performance also showed greater reductions in their their self-reported anxiety symptoms post-training. There was one null result – on an eye movement test (a version of the “anti-saccade task“), the training group did not show any post-training benefits compared with the control group.

Caution is in order because there were so few participants and we don’t know how long the apparent benefits of working memory training will last. The researchers characterise their results as a “proof of principle”, and it’s certainly exciting to think that a simple computerised task could help people become less anxious, simply by improving their basic memory skills.

Writing on her university’s research blog, Professor Derakshan says “the implications of improving attentional control are enormous in education and clinical science. Targeting and training working memory … holds the potential to protect against longer term under-achievement in anxious pupils. It can also protect against the development of clinical anxiety which can be debilitative to the individual.”

Further reading

Sari, B., Koster, E., Pourtois, G., & Derakshan, N. (2016). Training working memory to improve attentional control in anxiety: A proof-of-principle study using behavioral and electrophysiological measures Biological Psychology DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2015.09.008