Health & Wellness

Memory problems? This brain workout can help

Can't remember your sister's phone number? Feeling a little rusty at long division? Did you almost forget how to drive to your parents' house? If you answered yes to any of these questions, your brain might need a workout.

Yes, you read that right — much like a cardio workout for your heart, there is actually something you can do to sharpen your brain.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have discovered one particular brain exercise helped people significantly improve their working memory and even boost their brain activity. Their findings were published this week in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement.

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How to live longer without losing your memory

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How to live longer without losing your memory

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Skills like remembering phone numbers or directions require working memory, sometimes described as a “mental work space” or “mental sticky note” inside your mind that allows you to hold on to information you need right now. The researchers found that an exercise, called “dual n-back” training, pushes people to constantly update the information in their head.

“It is very difficult, but people get pretty good at it, which is impressive,” lead author Kara Blacker, a former Johns Hopkins post-doctoral fellow in psychological and brain sciences, told TODAY. “They can get better at it… and that’s what’s improving working memory.”

The brain workout is a bit like the children’s game Simon, but more complex. You have to remember the sequence of information that you’re given — in this case, by watching flashing squares and hearing letters at the same time — and then recall what was displayed a step before. It gets more difficult as you have to think two, three or even more steps back. Try it out:

The participants in the study who trained using the “dual n-back” exercise for 30 minutes, five days a week for four weeks, showed a 30 percent improvement in their working memory, or almost double the improvement of participants using another common brain exercise, Johns Hopkins University said.

The program used in the study is not commercially available, but Recall the Game, an app developed by another group of researchers, is similar in nature, said Blacker, who is not affiliated with the project. Her study did not look at whether simply playing a game like Simon would offer any benefits.

Researchers also don’t know the optimal amount of time you’d have to do the exercise, but “just like working out and exercising physically, the more you do it is likely to result in more improvement,” Blacker said.

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Train your brain during stressful times

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Train your brain during stressful times

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The people who used dual n-back also saw significant increase in their brain activity, as measured by an electroencephalogram (EEG). That doesn’t mean they became smarter — the exercise is specific to working memory only — but the training actually changed their brains, Blacker said.

The study, which involved healthy young adults, also found those who were lower performers to begin with responded better to training and showed greater improvement. That could be significant for older people with memory problems.

“It’s possible that could hold some promise for cognitive aging, Alzheimer’s and developmental disorders — populations that suffer from working memory deficits,” Blacker said.

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