Executive functions are high level cognitive processes that allow us to bring together ideas, movements and simple actions to perform more complex tasks (Shallice, 1988). However, although a single definition does not exist, this term is generally used to describe a great variety of skills and cognitive processes that enable individuals to have a flexible and goal-oriented behavior (Castellanos et al., 2006). Executive functions are very important in our daily lives. For example, writing a text, paying attention in class or going shopping before the store closes, among others. All of these actions might seem simple but each one of them requires the use of superior cognitive processes in order to carry them out.
Therefore, in general, it is understood that executive functions are in charge of controlling and self-regulating mental activity and any cognitive resources available. Moreover, these are skills that are not fully inherent but that have to be acquired and developed during the lifetime of every individual. As a matter of fact, some executive functions are not fully mature until one is twenty-five years old. That is, when it is thought that one has reached brain maturity.
The most important executive functions
As a result, among the main executive functions we will find the following:
Reasoning: use the different types of data received and any connections between them, as well as elaborating possible explanations.
Planning: enables the completion of a plan of action. More specifically, it enables taking a series of steps that will eventually lead to a specific objective.
Goal Setting: normally linked to motivation, it allows us to choose on what we want to spend our energy and where to direct our effort.
Decision Making: allows you to choose one option when several are available.
Task Initiation and Completion: indicates the capability to initiate and complete a task or action in a specific moment.
Organization: allows structuring and joining information together in a more efficient and useful way.
Inhibition: enables one to resist specific impulses, allowing us to stop doing something or ensuring that irrelevant information does not cause interference.
Monitorization: maintain attention when performing a task while monitoring how it is being done and what is being done.
Working Memory: it refers to the capability of storing information in a way that enables us to perform other tasks with it.
Anticipation: allows us to anticipate the results of an action and/or its consequences.
Flexibility: allows us to modify the way we act or perform a task when changes take place in our environment.
Disorders Associated with Executive Functions
There are various types of disorders and brain injuries that can result in impairments related to executive functions. And, as one can expect, these executive function disorders will have a great effect on the level of personal autonomy of those individuals who suffer from them.
In some cases, these disorders would have started since childhood as can be the case with those individuals that suffer from an Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). In these cases, children will have problems initiating a task, a poor capability inhibiting certain behaviors and making and following plans. It is also possible that they present problems retaining information in their working memory.
On the other hand, many individuals that suffer from a dementia are also affected by executive function disorders. In this case, the resulting impairment is caused by a neurodegenerative process that will affect directly the capacity of keeping our executive functions. It is also important to highlight that, even without an injury or underlying condition, executive functions will normally start to become affected at the age of sixty. This is why, cognitive stimulation or rehabilitation, depending on the underlying cause for the executive function disorder, is so important.
Rehabilitation of Executive Functions
In this way, Rehametrics currently has more than 25 exercises specifically designed to rehabilitate executive functions. All of these exercises have multiple levels of difficulty and several personalization options. As a result, it is easier for clinicians to adjust each exercise to the needs of their patients. The main exercises available in Rehametrics that allow clinicians to treat executive functions are:
Progressive, Flexible or Inverse Sequencing: tasks that require sequencing numbers or steps to reach an objective.
Shopping I-VI: these tasks require planning, decision making, goal setting, and other advanced functions.
Inhibition: requires selecting all the stimuli that appear on screen except those that are the same as those on the left side of the screen.
Categorization, Wardrobe and Kitchen: these are tasks that require user to classify images or everyday objects according to the instructions given at the beginning of the task.
Auditive, Verbal and Visual Working Memory: working memory tasks where users have to remember words they hear (auditive), words they read (verbal) or images (visual).
Cognitive Flexibility I-III: trains the capability to react to changes in the instructions or in the task itself.
Processing Speed I-III: these tasks focus on the speed at which information is processed.