Concentrated Guidance: Attention training gives kids a cognitive push

A brief course on how to pay attention boosts children’s scores on either intelligence or attention tests, depending on their age, a new study finds.

The training may quicken normal brain development, says a team of neuroscientists led by Michael I. Posner of the University of Oregon in Eugene. Earlier research had indicated that brain areas involved in controlling attention in the presence of conflicting information develop rapidly between ages 4 and 6.

Over 2 to 3 weeks, Posner’s team administered five training sessions to 4-year-olds and 6-year-olds. The younger kids showed higher IQ boosts—and the older ones, greater attention gains—than untrained kids did, the researchers report in an upcoming Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers also note that their study showed enhanced electric signaling in the brains of the children who received the training. Genetic differences, which the researchers analyzed in the 6-year-olds, influenced training effects too.

Attention training “could potentially lead to better intervention strategies for children with attention and other behavior problems,” according to Karla Holmboe and Mark H. Johnson, both neuroscientists at the University of London in England, in a comment published with the new study.

Posner and his colleagues recruited 49 kids in the younger group and 24 in the older group. The children received intelligence and attention testing while most of them wore sensor nets on their heads to measure electrical signals on the brain’s surface. Then, the children were randomly assigned to receive attention training or no training.

The training was adapted from tasks that increase attention control in monkeys. For example, children moved a cartoon cat across a computer screen using a joystick to keep the cat out of expanding muddy areas.

After training, all the children were again tested on intelligence and attention.

Brain regions activated in the 4-year-olds by attention training overlapped with those previously tied to IQ (SN: 7/29/00, p. 72: Available to subscribers at Looking for the brain’s g force), Posner says. That neural intermingling toward the front of the brain could explain why average intelligence scores rose 6 points among 4-year-olds after attention training, compared with a 1-point increase for untrained 4-year-olds, he suggests. Trained 4-year-olds displayed a much narrower advantage on an attention test.

Among 6-year-olds, training yielded a slight IQ-score advantage but a marked gain in attention control, also called executive attention. During testing, trained kids in this group showed strong neural responses toward the back of the brain, whereas untrained kids displayed predominantly frontal-brain activity, perhaps reflecting conscious effort.

DNA testing examined a gene that influences transmission of the chemical messenger dopamine. Posner’s findings indicated that 6-year-olds bearing one form of the gene displayed the poorest attention control before the training and the most improvement with training. The gene variant had been previously linked to an outgoing temperament.

Attention training engages brain networks that unconsciously orchestrate executive attention, propose Holmboe and Johnson. Untrained individuals devote considerable conscious effort to attention tasks and thus invoke other brain areas.

Posner’s team is now studying attention training with preschoolers who have symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.