Take control!

Self-regulation can be taught, even at an older age
Dennis William Gaylor, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
Dennis William Gaylor, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

You’re on a diet, and you’re painfully aware that another piece of that delicious chocolate cake is waiting for you in the refrigerator. Do you go and get it, or not? Although our environment is full of temptations, we have mechanisms for resisting them. To reach your long-term goal of losing weight, you may be able to resist that mouth-watering temptation and keep from opening the refrigerator.

The ability to postpone immediate gratification – also known as self-control, inhibition, self-regulation, or willpower – is extremely valuable. It is important in the context of addiction (e.g. to alcohol or nicotine), impaired emotion regulation (e.g. borderline personality disorder), and eating disorders (e.g. obesity). These disorders, which are highly debilitating for the individual, also impose considerable social and economic costs.

“The finding that brain structure and response inhibition can be trained in older individuals is very exciting and opens a new avenue for research.”

Research has shown that the prefrontal cortex of the brain is the key to self-control. This brain region is thought to be involved in planning complex behavior, decision making, and moderating social behavior. Later in life, the ability to inhibit responses wanes, accompanied by a natural decrease in the volume of the prefrontal cortex. Is this development irreversible, or is there a way to strengthen this part of the brain and thus enhance the ability to resist the urge to go the refrigerator, light a cigarette, or open a bottle of whiskey?

Seeking ways of fostering self-control in older adults, my colleagues and I at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development recently conducted a study on adults between the ages of 62 and 78 using a custom-made game. In this game, food items were displayed at the top of a tablet screen, and the task was to move them down onto a plate. The study participants had to work quickly, since the food items disappeared after a brief period of time. Some items, however, were not supposed to be touched or moved; these were pictured on a red napkin next to the plate.

Participants were asked to play this game for 20-30 minutes every day over a period of two months. Before and after the training phase, their brains were scanned using magnetic resonance imaging. This group, referred to as the inhibition training group, was compared with two other groups – one of which received no intervention, while the other participated in more traditional neuropsychological cognitive training.

“The hope is that digital training, which is relatively easy to make available, might be used to augment common psychotherapeutic approaches to addiction.”

The inhibition training group showed a significant increase in brain volume in a prefrontal brain region (right inferior frontal gyrus) that has been shown in previous research to be associated with inhibiting responses. It is particularly interesting to note that the participants showed so-called transfer effects, namely improved performance on another inhibition task that had not previously been the subject of training.

The finding that brain structure and response inhibition can be trained in older individuals is very exciting and opens a new avenue for research. In the meantime, my colleagues and I have begun to study alcohol-dependent patients to determine whether it is possible to take advantage of the observed training effects in a clinical context. The hope is that digital training, which is relatively easy to make available, might be used to augment common psychotherapeutic approaches to addiction.