Researchers have found improved cognitive function and psychological well-being among first responders who participated in the Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Tactics (SMART) training protocol, even when administered outside of the lab in short, informal training sessions.

The SMART training is typically administered to participants in a lab setting over a 12-week period and has been demonstrated to improve brain health over the past 2 decades. In the new study, participants included 74 police officers and 425 veterans, reservists, National Guard members, and active duty soldiers.

According to a press release on the findings, first responders face uncertainty and stress in their daily jobs and have demanding, unpredictable schedules. To accommodate these challenges, SMART trainings were tailored to their schedules.

The investigators wanted to test whether shorter workshops outside of the lab could have similar effects on the participants’ brain health. Trained clinicians delivered between 6 and 10 hours of SMART trainings over 2 to 3 days.

According to the results, participants’ overall cognitive function improved after SMART. For example, both police officers and military personnel demonstrated an average of 20% improvement in innovative thinking skills.

However, the investigators said they were surprised to find that SMART improved military participants’ integrated reasoning abilities by approximately 20%, though they did not see improvements in police officers. Finally, they noted that SMART improved participants’ strategic attention by approximately 16% in police officers, but improvements were not seen in military members or veterans.

The study authors said these differences may be attributable to differences in the participants’ jobs.

“Our brains are really driven by our own experiences, and how you use your brain is what makes you good at some things,” said researcher Jennifer Zientz, MS, CCC/SLP, head of clinical services at the Center for BrainHealth, in a press release.

Despite this, the investigators said the results suggest that various modes of SMART delivery could positively impact brain health. Trainings do not have to take a lot of time for participants to learn new information, apply it to their daily lives, and see a positive benefit, Zientz explained in the press release.

The program encouraged participants to take charge of their own brain health, including psychological well-being. The press release said that 4 months after training, military personnel reported less stress and depressive symptoms, as well as more satisfaction and resilience in their lives. These findings suggest that SMART can produce lasting results when applied in short programs outside of the lab, according to the study authors.

“With the rising rates of suicide, both in civilian and military populations, perhaps the most exciting aspect of the study is the impact of the cognitive training on psychological health,” said researcher Leanne R. Young, PhD, of Applied Research Associates, Inc, in a press release. “I look forward to seeing this work continue as the military builds its arsenal of weapons against anxiety, stress, and depression.”

REFERENCE
Center for BrainHealth Researchers Confirm Improvement in First Responders’ Brain Health After Shortened Training Protocol [news release]. Center for BrainHealth; January 26, 2021. https://brainhealth.utdallas.edu/center-for-brainhealth-researchers-confirm-improvement-in-first-responders-brain-health-after-shortened-training-protocol/. Accessed February 1, 2021.