Leading Innovation in the Science of Brain Training: Beckman Scientists Launch INSIGHT Study

As President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative looks at ways to better understand how the human mind works, researchers at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology are leading innovation in the science of brain training by examining new ways to improve reasoning and problem solving.

A multidisciplinary study based at the Beckman Institute is being conducted by researchers across the world to determine what kind of training best improves adaptive reasoning and fluid intelligence.

The project, named INSIGHT (“An integrative system for enhancing fluid intelligence (Gf) through human cognitive activity, fitness, high-definition transcranial direct-current brain stimulation, and nutritional intervention”) recently received $12.7 million in funding over 42 months from the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA), under the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The INSIGHT project directly supports IARPA’s SHARP (Strengthening Human Adaptive Reasoning and Problem-solving) program, whose goal is to develop evidence-based tools and methods that can improve the quality of human judgment and reasoning in complex, real world environments.

The study, headed by Aron K. Barbey, full-time faculty member in Cognitive Neuroscience at the Beckman Institute and in the Departments of Speech and Hearing Science, Internal Medicine, and Psychology, is designed to establish a comprehensive and rigorous brain training protocol that incorporates the best available cognitive, physical fitness, neuroscience, and nutritional interventions for the enhancement of fluid intelligence.

The INSIGHT brain training system is based on recent evidence in cognitive neuroscience indicating that specific training interventions may lead to increased general cognitive abilities, including enhancement in fluid intelligence, which is the ability to effectively solve problems and recognize meaningful patterns in novel situations, Barbey said.

“For decades, scientists at the Beckman Institute have developed powerful interventions to improve human performance,” said Barbey. “For the first time, these discoveries are being implemented within a comprehensive brain training system that is designed to enhance fluid intelligence. The INSIGHT brain training system incorporates some of the best available scientific evidence for building better brains and, we believe, has great potential for success.”

Barbey’s research group investigates the neural architecture of human intelligence, with particular emphasis on the prefrontal cortex. In a series of landmark studies, Barbey and colleagues have mapped several  brain systems related to general intelligence, fluid intelligence, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. Their study of fluid intelligence is considered to be one of the largest and most comprehensive analyses yet in this exciting area of neuroscience research.

INSIGHT will be one of the largest scientific studies investigating fluid intelligence conducted to date: nearly 2,000 individuals organized into four cohorts over a three-and-a-half year period, for more than 100,000 hours of planned data collection. INSIGHT program participants will engage in the training activities over 18 weeks in an effort to improve reasoning and problem solving skills.   

Those interested in helping the researchers learn to build a better brain, please email uiuc.insight@gmail.com, or visit our web site.

Along with Barbey, other Beckman researchers are Art Kramer, director of the Beckman Institute and professor in the Department of Psychology; Neal Cohen, director of the Center for Nutrition, Learning, and Memory and professor in the Department of Psychology; Charles Hillman, professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health; and John Erdman, professor emeritus in food science and human nutrition. Academic partners include the Georgia Institute of Technology, the City College of New York, and the Autonomous University of Madrid, Spain. Aptima, Abbott, and Circinus are business partners.

IARPA’s mission is to invest in high-risk, high-payoff research programs that have the potential to provide our nation with an overwhelming intelligence advantage over our future adversaries. Additional information on IARPA, the SHARP program, and their other research may be found on their web site.

This article is part of the Spring 2014 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.