Training your working memory may help curb chronic health conditions

We have all had moments when we chose to skip the gym and eat the piece of cake or take the extra helping, even though we knew that we wanted to lose weight.

These decisions are impacted by delay discounting: in this case, the reward of eating fattening food is immediate, while the pay-off of good health and weight maintenance associated with exercising and avoiding unhealthy foods is largely delayed.

Excessive delay discounting can stem from not being able to imagine a future self; If you can’t picture a healthier version of yourself, you may be less likely to work on improving your health today. Lower income, unstable environments, and limited access to resources are associated with greater delay discounting, and over time, this can lead to chronic diseases such as tobacco addiction and obesity.

But what if we could train our memory -- our working memory -- to reduce delay discounting? That question is at the heart of a study funded by a four-year, $2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to KU and other universities that examines whether strengthening working memory may play a role in reducing delay discounting in medically underserved populations in Baltimore, Maryland.

Working memory is essential for complex brain tasks such as comprehension, learning, and reasoning. It contributes to our ability to successfully navigate the world, like how to plan and execute complex activities, to attend to important information, and to multi-task.

Richard Yi, director of the Cofrin Logan Center for Addiction Research and Treatment, is the primary architect of the first published results showing the potential of working memory training to reduce delay discounting. Yi leads the study with partners at the University of Maryland-Baltimore, Michigan State University, and the University of Florida.

The ongoing research explores working memory training via computerized training exercises, and whether improving working memory will reduce delay discounting and health-compromising behaviors.

For the first stage of the study, participants at a community drop-in center serving low-income and homeless individuals in Baltimore completed up to 15 sessions of a working memory training program. Early findings, published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, showed that the program led to improvements in working memory, which in turn, decreased the rate of delay discounting. It also demonstrated the feasibility of implementing working memory training in real-world community settings.

Ultimately, if working memory training can strengthen self-control, it could be applied to chronic conditions such as obesity and addiction.

The study has expanded to a second community center in Baltimore and expected to expand to a third this winter.