Mind over Mario: About video games, lost teeth, and new brain therapies

You are going to like it”, Stefanie’s Australian colleagues ensured her when they spoke about their project: “Once you come Down Under, you can try it yourself”. Some months later, when Stefanie arrived at her temporary Australian office, they showed her their project: playing Super Mario hands-free. On the computer screen the well-known Mario figure could be recognized and on the table there was a headband device with electrodes. Stefanie enthusiastically put the headband on and received the instructions: “If you want to jump, just blink; if you want to walk, you have to relax“. It was amazing to see how indeed Mario could be moved just with the mind, without pressing any buttons.

The Mind over Mario game is an example of a brain-computer-interface (BCI), programmed to pick up measured brain activity and translate specific signals into computer commands to control a device (here the movement of the Mario figure). Other types of BCIs convert measured brain activity into sensory representations as a form of real-time feedback, designed to inform the user about their current brain activity (Enriquez-Geppert et al., 2017). The movement of a curser ball towards a target on the computer screen for example could indicate changes of the current brain activity into an intended direction. Individuals can thus learn to self-regulate their brain activity, an approach known as neurofeedback. The backbone of neurofeedback is an empirically confirmed relation between certain features of brain activity and specific cognitive functions (Herrmann & Knight, 2001). Currently, neurofeedback attracts growing interest in scientific and health care communities, for instance as potential non-invasive therapeutic tool for patients (Enriquez-Geppert et al., in press).

“One such patient who could benefit from neurofeedback is Patient K.”

Diede met K during her practical work at a center for patients with cognitive impairments. One morning, while in the crafts room, K suddenly realized that he lost his lower dentures. Being absolutely sure he had his dentures in his mouth just a moment before, he alarmed a staff member. Within minutes, a group of patients and staff started a thorough search. Even the toilet drain was searched in case the patient accidentally flushed his teeth – to no avail. Upon returning to his room to take a nap, however, K suddenly felt something underneath his pillow: his lower dentures! It turned out he had put them there the night before when reading a new book. K put the dentures where he would have normally put the book, and the book where he would have put the dentures. Thus, instead of the dentures being in the bathroom, the book was there, right above the sink on a tray. While such incidents can occasionally happen to any of us, for example when we are tired or distracted, K suffers from them on a daily basis because of his cognitive impairments.

Part of the cognitive impairments of K can be described as impairments of so-called executive functions. Executive functions are separable but inter-related higher cognitive functions, which control primary processes – such as memory and attention – and enable flexible and successful goal-oriented behavior and thoughts (Snyder et al., 2015). Executive functions allow us to react controlled when automatic and habitual reactions are inappropriate, make decisions, evaluate risks, prioritize and sequence our actions, and cope with novel situations. Patients with executive dysfunctions can experience severe daily problems with planning, time management, evaluating ideas, and keeping track of multiple tasks at the same time.

“Currently, available treatments for executive dysfunctions have only small to moderate effect sizes (Stamenova & Levine, 2018; Webb et al., 2018) and are therefore insufficient to clinically improve cognitive abilities, daily functioning, and well-being of patients. One option to increase the clinical armamentarium is by enhancing executive functions through modulation of their neural underpinnings, e.g., via neurofeedback.”

Research has shown a relationship between executive functioning and theta oscillations measured at the frontal-midline (fm) scalp regions. Fm theta oscillations are even considered as the neural working language of executive functions (Cavanagh & Frank, 2014). Oscillations reflect the rhythmic activity of neurons that can be picked up with electroencephalography (EEG). Deviating theta oscillations have been associated with age-related performance declines (Enriquez-Geppert & Barceló, 2018) and abnormal theta activity as well as impairments of executive functions are found in various psychiatric and psychological disorders (Basar et al, 2016; Koerts et al., 2011, Huepen et al., 2016). Scientific findings show the feasibility of self-regulation of fm-theta by neurofeedback and as a result of improving executive functioning in healthy participants (Enriquez-Geppert et al., 2014). Fm-theta neurofeedback thus is a potentially viable treatment option for patients like K.

 

Although games like Mind over Mario might not yet be suitable for patients, Diede, Stefanie and colleagues currently develop the newest state-of-the art neurofeedback trainings as clinical interventions for patients with executive problems.

 

References

Buzsáki, G., Logothetis, N., & Singer, W. (2013). Scaling brain size, keeping timing: evolutionary preservation of brain rhythms. Neuron, 80(3), 751-764.

Cavanagh, J. F., & Frank, M. J. (2014). Frontal theta as a mechanism for cognitive control. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18(8), 414-421.

Enriquez-Geppert, S., & Barceló, F. (2016). Multisubject decomposition of event-related positivities in cognitive control: tackling the age-related anterior-shift. Brain Topography, 31(1), 17-34.

Enriquez-Geppert, S., Smit, D., Garcia Pimenta, M., & Arns, M. (in press). De huidige status van neurofeedback als behandeling voor ADHD. Tijdschrift voor neuropsychologie.

Enriquez-Geppert, S., Huster, R.J. & Herrmann, C.S. (2017). EEG-neurofeedback as a tool to modulate cognition and Behavior: A review tutorial. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 11, 51.

Enriquez-Geppert, S., Huster, R. J., Figge, C., & Herrmann, C. S. (2014). Self-regulation of frontal-midline theta facilitates memory updating and mental set shifting. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 8, 420.

Herrmann, C. S., & Knight, R. T. (2001). Mechanisms of human attention: Event-related potentials and oscillations. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 25(6), 465-476.

Koerts, J., Van Beilen, M., Tucha, O., Leenders, K. L., & Brouwer, W. H. (2011). Executive functioning in daily life in Parkinson’s disease: initiative, planning and multi-task performance. PLoS ONE, 6(12), e29254.

Stamenova, V., & Levine, B. (2018). Effectiveness of goal management training® in improving executive functions: A meta-analysis. Neuropsychological Rehabilitation, 1-31.

Webb, S. L., Loh, V., Lampit, A., Bateman, J. E., & Birney, D. P. (2018). Meta-analysis of the effects of computerized cognitive training on executive functions: A cross-disciplinary taxonomy for classifying outcome cognitive factors. Neuropsychology Review, 1-19.

 

NOTE: Image by Dave Hunt, licenced under CC BY 2.0.

Stefanie Enriquez-Geppert is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Clinical and Developmental Neuropsychology at the University of Groningen. Her research focuses on executive (dys)functions. The scope of her examination is the specification of neurocognitive processes underlying executive functions in young and elderly participants, and in particular in patients with impaired executive control. In a substantial portion of her work, she develops and applies neuroscientific approaches to enhance executive functions in clinical subject groups. Stefanie Enriquez-Geppert studied at the University of Münster, Germany and graduated her psychology program with an emphasis on cognitive neuroscience. Afterwards she continued at the University of Münster and worked on a Phd project about executive functions using EEG, structural and functional MRI. She finished a first postdocorate on neural oscillations at the University of Oldenburg (Germany) and completed a second on researching declines of executive functioning in elderly at the University of the Balearic Islands in Spain. She spent several research stays abroad, for instance at the University of Mexico in Mexico; the University of Bergen, Norway; the University of Cambridge, UK; and the University of Newcastle, Australia. For further information visit: http://www.enriquez-geppert.com.


Diede Smit is currently finishing her Research Master program in the Clinical Neuropsychology track at the University of Groningen. She gained practical experience in clinics for cognitive impairments and worked also as a research-assistant. Her master’s thesis research assesses the effects of frontal-midline theta neurofeedback on executive functioning. Diede Smit is one of the awardees winning the Faculty Support Grants for a 4-years PhD project, in which she will extend her current research project on neurofeedback.


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