Dopamine is typically thought of as the neurotransmitter of “reward” and “pleasure.” And while the role of dopamine in working memory has been examined previously, researchers from the Karolinska Institute now have shown for the first time that brain training (or cognitive training) is associated with enhanced dopamine release. Their results were published in the journal Science.
Brain training can enhance your working memory capacity. Working memory or short-term memory is the transient storage of relevant information that we use to comprehend a sentence, dial a phone number that we have just looked up, or take action on a new plan. It is the memory that we use to “work” through a situation. Good working memory is typically associated with intelligence. Poor working memory, on the other hand, is one of the core deficits in a number of learning disabilities including ADHD.
In the study, 20 subjects received PET scans to look at dopamine release in a certain area of the brain. Half of the subjects were then trained on a working memory task in which they were asked to remember letters that were presented to them on a computer screen. The task was to remember the sequence of the last four letters correctly. They trained three times a week for five weeks. The other half of the subjects did not receive this training. All subjects then received a second PET scan.
Cognitive training improved performance on the working-memory task compared to the control group that did not receive training, and additionally, improved performance in an untrained task that also requires updating.
Differences in PET scans from before and after training demonstrated an increase in dopamine release for the trained group as compared to the non-trained group, who remained at baseline levels.
“Working-memory training resulted in increased dopamine release in the caudate, a region located below the neocortex, in which the dopaminergic influx is particularly large”, says Lars Bäckman, Professor at Karolinska Institutet, in a press release. He is one of the scientists behind the study. “This observation demonstrates the importance of dopamine for improving working-memory performance.”
The findings also suggest that working memory in general, and not just on the specific task, can be improved with cognitive training.