Their findings, which appeared in a recent issue of the journal Neuron, hold promise for addressing a range of brain impairments in humans, including schizophrenia.
The study was conducted by researchers at NYU’s Center for Neural Science, State University of New York (SUNY) Downstate Medical Center, NYU Langone Medical Center, and the Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research.
Researchers have aimed to address human neuropsychiatric impairments, such as schizophrenia, through mental training—for example, executive function exercises that teach patients to focus their attention and selectively recall important information. Historically, these methods, collectively titled cognitive remediation, have been of limited value because they have been applied to patients whose conditions are too advanced to address.
However, early intervention, in principle, is a viable approach to treatment. This is because our brains continue to develop until the age of about 20, and because experience can have the powerful effect of tuning neural circuits.
“This means you have a window to intervene prior to a neural system manifesting functional abnormality and becoming unchangeable,” explains André Fenton, a professor at the Center for Neural Science, associate professor at SUNY Downstate, and one of the study’s co-authors.
But a question that has vexed researchers is what kind of training can yield dividends? This matter was the focus of the Neuron study.
Through a series of experiments, the researchers examined the behavior and brain physiology of rats with normally functioning brains and those whose brains had been impaired by lesions, which model the effects of schizophrenia. Not only did preemptive training in adolescent rats prevent adult deficits in cognitive control, but when researchers investigated electrical brain function they observed that preemptive cognitive training had also corrected how the damaged brain was operating. The findings indicate that the early cognitive intervention also allowed the brain to function normally during the cognitive challenge, despite the enduring brain damage.
“Our findings show that if you focus the young brain on gaining a certain kind of experience, then we can train it to solve certain types of problems that will confront the adult brain,” explains Fenton. “But this must be done at a time when the brain is flexible.”
The study’s other co-authors included Dino Dvorak of SUNY Downstate Medical Center and the Polytechnic Institute of NYU, and Helen Scharfman of NYU Langone Medical Center
The study was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, part of the National Institutes of Health
New York University