Brain on Autopilot: What happens when your Mind wanders?
Our brain does not only show activation when we’re performing a task. Rather, researchers have found brain networks that are consistently activated while we are awake but still not concentrated on anything specific.
When the Brain wanders…
The so-called Resting State Networks (RSNs), the brain areas, which are activated without an external stimulus, have been the topic of intense research in recent years. It is still not completely established, what exactly the activation in these networks reflects; however, activation in RSNs has been observed to be decreased in Alzheimer’s patients, disrupted in schizophrenia, and altered in Parkinson’s disease.
Although the exact function of these RSNs is not clear yet, scientists suggest that they play an important role in the integration of cognitive and emotional processing, as well as in reflecting on one’s inner thoughts.
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Since RSN activations seem to change in clinical conditions, researchers have started to become interested in whether the activations can be modified by training interventions. And exactly this seems to be the case: for example, researchers from the Cyceron centre for neuroscience research in France showed, that training to solve logical problems increased resting state activation. It was hypothesized that RSN activation is related to the consolidation of newly acquired knowledge.
Japanese researchers from the Tohoku University showed that working memory training increased RSN activation, and based on their findings they suggested that the increased activity reflected an increase in working memory capacity and therefore improved cognitive performance after training.
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Importantly, studies are also starting to reveal how changes is RSN activations may be linked to preservation of cognitive functioning at old age through brain training interventions. Researchers from Chinese universities showed that cognitive training increased the connectivity between several RSNs, implying that cognitive training may delay age-related cognitive decline by improving the functional integration of different brain regions.
Although the research field on RSNs is still very young and many questions are waiting to be answered, the findings until now have provided further evidence on the benefits of brain training, and also opened new windows into explaining the mechanisms of training-related improvements.
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