updated 9/27/2005 7:19:16 AM ET 2005-09-27T11:19:16

The use of special computer games to train their brains improved healthy youngsters’ ability to pay attention, scientists reported Monday.

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It’s not clear just how much the games helped, other specialists cautioned. But with booming interest in developing therapies for attention problems, the research sheds light on how a normal youngster’s brain pays attention in the first place.

At issue is “executive attention,” the ability to tune out distractions and pay attention only to useful information.

The capacity develops between the ages of 3 and 7, said University of Oregon psychologist Michael Posner, who has studied cognitive development by measuring electrical signals from the brains of preschoolers and young children.

There’s great individual variation among healthy children and adults, and problems with this particular attention-paying neural network may be one of many involved in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD.

Posner and colleagues at Cornell University’s Weill Medical College wondered if it’s possible to speed this network’s normal development.

They adapted computer exercises used to train monkeys for space travel into games for 4- and 6-year-olds: For five days, the youngsters progressed from a game that moved a cat in and out of grass to more complex tasks, such as choosing the largest number amid deliberate distractions.

The researchers measured the children’s brain activity with electroencephalographs and administered tests of attention and intelligence before and after the training; some children also underwent genetic testing.

Wide range of normal behavior
The brains of the 6-year-olds showed significant changes after the computer training compared with untrained playmates who watched videos, Posner reported Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

They were small improvements compared with the effect that simply getting older brings, Posner cautioned.

The 4-year-olds showed little change.

There was a genetic effect: Children who were less outgoing and more controlled were better able to concentrate for their age and thus showed less effect from the training.

The study “significantly advances our understanding ... because it demonstrates that executive attention skills can be trained, or development accelerated, in young children,” neuroscientists Karla Holmbie and Mark Johnson of the University of London’s Centre for Brain & Cognitive Development wrote in an accompanying review.

But it’s not clear if the training truly accelerated development — or merely made the children better at test-taking through practice, said Dr. Lisa Freund of the National Institutes of Health’s child development branch.

“These kids may just be getting better at doing things in the lab,” she cautioned, adding that brain training for any reason, especially attention problems, is in its infancy.

Posner echoed the cautions. “The fundamental question is can we improve attention in preschool ages and can that be helpful,” he said. “We’re a long way from the final answer to that, or even a good answer.”

Still, the study is important because it shows how healthy youngsters’ brains work at different tasks at different ages.

“We’ve got to know normal before we can really understand what’s abnormal,” said NIH’s Freund. “Especially with young children, there’s such a wide range of normal behavior.”

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