January 18th, 2012
11:27 AM ET

Study: Challenging seniors' brains can also change their personality

We’ve all heard the adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks." But new research reveals that you CAN teach an older adult how to improve their brain skills, with the added effect of changing a personality trait, making them more open to new experiences.

Using subjects from a study designed to improve brain skills of older people, the researchers hypothesized that improving cognitive skills might also increase participants openness - a personality trait that allows a person to be receptive to new experiences or being engaged by novel ideas such as an intellectual challenge.

Lead researcher Elizabeth Stine-Morrow of the University of Illinois explains, “It also makes sense that, reciprocally, if you engage in cognitive abilities that you enjoy and that are rewarding, that will also make you open to experience. And that’s what we found.”

The study, published in Psychology and Aging, included 183 older adults, ages 60 to 94 years old. Half of the participants were randomly assigned to a 16 week long home-based program designed to improve their inductive reasoning skills, and the remaining subjects served as the control group. 

All participants were tested on measures of  inductive reasoning before the study began and again after the 16-week study period. The control group subjects simply engaged in the pre- and post-study testing.

Each training group participant was given self-guided material that included tests for recognizing patterns in numbers and letters, along with crossword and Sudoku puzzles, which also sharpen inductive reasoning skills. The material was designed to allow each subject to feel challenged by the material, but not overwhelmed or frustrated by the tasks.

Participants kept logs of how much time they spent on the material, and each week they met with researchers, turning in their logs, and getting more challenging material to work on the following week.  While both the control subjects and the intervention subjects tested similarly in the pre-study testing, after the 16 week study, the researchers found a significant increase in measures of inductive reasoning and openness among the intervention group.

“The hallmark of this program is that [the seniors] were learning a concrete skill and they could see this in their test performance,” Stine-Morrow explains. 

The research is unique in that, “people in the inductive reasoning group gradually increased in their scores on a very reliable measure of openness to experience,” she adds. This is novel because “there’s a lot of research that suggests as we get older... people don’t change radically in their personality... so the fact that we could, with a small cognitive intervention, increase this openness to experience, which in the long run may affect cognition, it’s exciting and a little bit different.”

When asked to explain the take-home message of their study, Stine-Morrow cautioned that the results must first be replicated in future studies. But what the results imply, she says, is that it’s a good idea to put yourself in situations where you learn new things in a way that doesn’t overwhelm you.

"So stay somewhat in your comfort zone, but push on the boundaries a little bit. And that in turn is likely to make you more comfortable with new experiences, so ideally this could be a sort of self perpetuating process.”

Stine-Morrow notes that there’s a lot of debate in scientific literature about whether people can alter cognitive processes with brain activity, adding that scientists know “that people who are engaged in a lot of [brain] activity do better in a variety of ways, but we need to be careful here. What we know is that really active people have better cognitive abilities, but it could be that if you’re more cognitively vital, then you have more resources to go do all these things.”

It may be as simple as use it or lose it – it certainly can’t harm our brains to pick up a challenging word or number puzzle.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.