A new study suggests that preemptive cognitive training — an early intervention to address neuropsychiatric deficiencies — can help the brain function normally later in life.

The findings appear in the journal Neuron, and may result in a new method to address a range of brain impairments in humans, including schizophrenia.

Historically, researchers have aimed to address human neuropsychiatric impairments, such as schizophrenia, through mental training. Training sessions often include executive function exercises that teach patients to focus their attention and selectively recall important information.

However, 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.

Nevertheless, conceptually, early intervention is a viable approach to treatment. Two factors support early intervention, the first being the recognition that our brains continue to develop and grow up until the age of about 20. Second is the understanding that experience can have the powerful effect of tuning neural circuits.

Taken together, researchers believe it may be possible to use mental training to harness the young brain’s developmental potential to compensate for abnormal neural circuits.

“This means you have a window to intervene prior to a neural system manifesting functional abnormality and becoming unchangeable,” explained André Fenton, Ph.D., a professor at New York University’s Center for Neural Science and one of the study’s co-authors.

Fenton, also an associate professor of physiology and pharmacology at SUNY Downstate, added, “If you can detect an abnormality in the brain early enough, you can redirect the trajectory of development and train the younger brain to solve problems that will confront the adult brain.”

But a question that has vexed researchers is, what kind of training can yield dividends? This matter was the focus of the Neuron study.

The research team conducted its study on laboratory rats at two different stages of life—at adolescence, or 35 days old, which is the human equivalent of 13 years of age, and as young adults, or 60 days old, which is the human equivalent of just over 20 years, which is the typical onset of schizophrenia symptoms.

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.

“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,” explained Fenton.

“But this must be done at a time when the brain is flexible in order to carve out pathways to gain competencies of a normal brain.”

Source: New York University