In a nutshell: Multi-tasking is a complex mental feat that brain researchers are keen to decipher. This finding will help them do that, and is expected to be of interest to the brain-training industry.

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The big picture:

Multitasking — doing several cognitive tasks at once — is an extraordinarily complex mental process that improves with training. Which is why, say, a trumpeter can coordinate her fingers, lips and diaphragm to hit the right notes, while reading music and watching the conductor, and you can’t.

Now, a brain region that predicts who will benefit most from multitasking training has been identified by Ashika Verghese, Kelly Garner, and Paul Dux from The University of Queensland, and Centre for Integrative Brain Function chief investigator Jason Mattingley.

Their findings are likely to be of interest to the burgeoning brain-training industry, which already offers apps that claim to improve multitasking.

Identifying who is most likely to benefit from multitasking brain training could also help fine-tune brain-training programs designed for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or those who have suffered a stroke, who find multitasking particularly difficult.

In this study, 100 people were put through weeklong brain-training programs. Fifty people were repeatedly shown one of two images and played one of two musical tones, either separately, or, in the multitasking exercise, at the same time. They identified the image and the note by pressing buttons on two controllers, one in each hand. Reaction time indicated multi-tasking prowess.

The other fifty people – a comparison group — did brain training to improve their ability to spot an image on a screen amongst other distracting images but not to improve multitasking. Both groups were tested before and after the brain training boot camp to see how well they multitasked.

Some people who did the multitasking training showed no improvement, while others wiped as much as one second off their reaction times, responding almost as quickly to single or multiple tasks.

“A second can be really important,” says Dux. “When you are driving, it can be the difference between life and death for a pedestrian.”

“If you have to slam on the brakes when you’re driving, imagine what a difference that could make to your braking distance if a pedestrian unexpectedly stepped in front of your car.”

MRI scans of the participants’ brains found that a region in the rostral dorsolateral prefrontal cortex was only half the size in those who showed the biggest improvement in multitasking versus those who showed no improvement. In other words, people with a smaller prefrontal area got the greatest benefits from the multitasking training.

Improvements in the comparison group, where participants had to spot an image but did not practice multitasking, were not associated with differences in the size of the prefrontal brain region.

Next steps:
The team will investigate why the size of the rostral dorsolateral prefrontal cortex matters, and whether it predicts ability to improve other cognitive skills such as abstract reasoning, attention and working memory.

Verghese, A., Garner, K. G., Mattingley, J. B., and Dux, P. E. (2016). Prefrontal Cortex Structure Predicts Training-Induced Improvements in Multitasking Performance. The Journal of Neuroscience, 36(9), 2638-2645.

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