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Cognitive Training and Brain Fitness Computer Programs: Interview with Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg

Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg is a clinical professor of neurology at New York University School of Medicine, and author of over 50 peer-reviewed papers. His areas of expertise include executive functions, memory, attention deficit disorder, dementia, traumatic brain injury, and others. Dr. Goldberg was a student and close associate of the great neuropsychologist Alexander Luria. His book The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind (Oxford University Press, 2001) has received critical acclaim and has been published in 12 languages. His recent book The Wisdom Paradox: How Your Mind Can Grow Stronger As Your Brain Grows Older (Gotham Books, Penguin, 2005) offers an innovative understanding of cognitive aging and what can be done to forestall cognitive decline. It has been, or is in the process of being, published in 13 languages.

We are fortunate that Dr. Goldberg is SharpBrains Co-Founder and Chief Scientific Advisor. His book The Wisdom Paradox inspired me to embark in this path, and has been a key sounding board in the development of what we are doing.

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Key take-aways

– “Use It and Get More of It” reflects reality better than “Use It or Lose It”.

– Let’s demystify cognition and the brain. Everyone needs to have a basic understanding of the brain-and how to cultivate it.

Well-directed mental exercise is a must for cognitive enhancement and healthy aging.

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Roots: Vygotsky and Luria

Alvaro Fernandez (AF): Elkhonon, maybe we could start with Vygotsky. At one of my Stanford classes, I became fascinated by his theory of learning. Which links into modern neuropsychology.

Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg (EG): Vygotsky proposed that learning requires internalization. And that internalization equals, literally, a change in the brain of the learner. Of course there weren advanced neuroimaging techniques those days, so scientists could only speculate about what happened in healthy brains. But they could carefully analyze what happened with patients who had suffered any kind of serious brain problem, from strokes to traumatic brain injury. And this is how neuropsychology was born: Alexander Luria, Vygotsky disciple, and my own mentor, was commissioned to help rehabilitate Russian soldiers with brain injuries during WWII. This provided invaluable clinical material for understanding the mechanisms of the healthy brain. Much of modern cognitive neuroscience rests its foundation in Luria’s work.

Neuroimaging

AF: and now we have new neuroimaging techniques.

EG: Precisely. It is often said that new neuroimaging methods have changed neuroscience in the same way that the telescope changed astronomy. We use MRI, PET, SPECT, fMRI and MEG both in neuroscience research and in clinical practice. None of these techniques is perfect, but used properly they provide us with a much better understanding than we had only 30 years ago.

Research and work

AF: please tell us about your main research and practical interests.

EG: As you can see in my papers and books, I will categorize them in 3 areas-a) computer-based cognitive training/ Brain Fitness overall, b) healthy cognitive aging, and c) frontal lobes and executive functions. I am also interested in memory, hemispheric interaction, and in a general theory of cortical functional organization, but we will leave this for another occasion and focus today on those three areas.

First, Cognitive Training/ Brain Fitness. Rigorous and targeted cognitive training has been used in clinical practice for many years. It can help improve memory, attention, confidence and competence, reasoning skills, even how to reduce anxiety and deal with uncomfortable situations.

Second, healthy cognitive aging. The brain evolves as we age. Some areas, such as pattern recognition, get better with age. Some require extra-workouts in order to reduce “chinks in the armor” and increase neuroprotection through the Cognitive (or Brain) Reserve). Hence, the need for targeted cognitive training.

Third, the Frontal lobes and executive functions, which permeate seemingly very different problems such as ADHD and Alzheimer’s, are critical for our identity and successful daily functioning so they require extra attention.

Frontal Lobes and executive functions

AF: Please tell us more about what the Frontal Lobes are

EG: We researchers typically call them the Executive Brain. The prefrontal cortex is young by evolutionary terms, and is the brain area critical to adapt to new situations, plan for the future, and self-regulate our actions in order to achieve long-term objectives. We could say that that part of the brain, right behind our forehead, acts as the conductor of an orchestra, directing and integrating the work of other parts of the brain.

I provide a good example in The Executive Brain book, where I explain how I was able to organize my escape from Russia into the US.

Significantly, the pathways that connect the frontal lobes with the rest of the brain are slow to mature, reaching full operational state between ages 18 and 30, or maybe even later. And, given that they are not as hard-wired as other parts of the brain, they are typically the first areas to decline.

Cognitive Training and Brain Fitness

AF: And is that one of the areas where cognitive training/ Brain Fitness Programs can help

EG: Yes. Most programs I have seen so far are better at training other brain areas, which are also very important, but we are getting there, with examples such as working memory training, emotional self-regulation and domain-specific decision-making. Some of the spectacular research and clinical findings of the last 20 years that remain to be discovered by the population at large are that we enjoy lifelong brain plasticity and neurogenesis, that the rate of development of new neurons can be influenced by cognitive activities, and that intense mental challenges provide extra resistance to aging.

Exercising our brains systematically ways is as important as exercising our bodies. In my experience, “Use it or lose it” should really be “Use it and get more of it”. And computer-based programs are proving to be a great vehicle for that.

Emotions and Art

AF: We have been talking mostly about cognition or “thinking”. What about the role of emotions, as shown by the great research by Damasio?

EG: Great question. Until recently, emotions were simply not relevant for many cognitive neuroscientists. That is changing, and there is more and more research looking into what makes us “uniquely human”: attributes like motivation, judgment, empathy, insight into others, emotional self-regulation.

AF: how does that link into the role of art? Can we consider art creation and appreciation as brain exercise?

EG: Indeed, and a great one. This is still open territory, but my personal opinion is that art’s main purpose is in fact exercising brains. As I mention in The Wisdom Paradox, I wouldn’t be surprised if piano lessons were shown to improve overall sharpness and lucidity. Any activity changes the brain, and systematic programs can be designed to lead that change in a better way than random daily activities. Learning a complex skill such as learning the piano helps train and develop some parts of the brain. Well-designed computer-programs help train and develop other parts.

Key Messages

AF: if we had to summarize your key messages to the public, based on your research and clinical career, what would you say?

EG: first, I would say, “Forget about Use It or Lose It”. It is “Use It and Get More of It!”. Second, I would like to contribute to demystify cognition and the brain, enabling people to increase their self-awareness, their knowledge of the brain and how to cultivate it throughout life. Finally, I would highlight the importance of well-directed mental exercise, on one hand, and of supportive social networks, on the other. I am enthused about the opportunity to work with you and SharpBrains and get the word out.

AF: so are we. It is a pleasure to collaborate on such an endeavor. Which I am sure will provide us with plenty of brain exercise.

EG: as long as you don’t stress out, that’s good! Good night, Alvaro.

AF: Good night, Elkhonon.

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Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychology Interview Series: in-depth interviews with 11 scientists and experts in cognitive training and brain fitness.

Books on neuroplasticity and memory training: reviews of Train Your Brain, Change Your Mind, by Sharon Begley, and The Brain That Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge. Both books are fascinating and powerful; each would have merited appearing in the 2007 New York Times List of 100 Notable Books.

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48 Responses

  1. […] Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg on Brain Fitness Programs and Cognitive Training. Dr. Goldberg is a neuropsychologist and clinical professor of neurology at New York University School of Medicine. He was a student and close associate of the great neuropsychologist Alexander Luria, and has written The Executive Brain and The Wisdom Paradox. […]

  2. […] You can also read our more detailed (and probably more precise) interview with Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg on Brain Fitness and Cognitive Training […]

  3. […] Certainly, good advice for us too to refine our Brain Fitness efforts. Here you have a relevant fragment of my (AF)recent interview with Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg (EG): […]

  4. […] 2) To disseminate the latest science to increase public understanding of cognitive health and to dispel common misconceptions. The discovery of lifelong neuroplasticity and neurogenesis has given us a new positive view upon the human brain – This is still a concept not many know of. "Use it or lose it" and “Use It and Get More of It” needs to reach all people. See this good overview on the topic. […]

  5. […] Dr. Ginger Campbell just published a nice podcast interview with our co-founder and chief scientific advisor Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg, whom we also interviewed some months ago on brain improvement research and ideas. […]

  6. […] Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg on Cognitive Training and Brain Fitness overall […]

  7. […] “Exercising our brains systematically ways is as important as exercising our bodies. In my experience, “Use it or lose it” should really be “Use it and get more of it”.- Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg, neuropsychologist, clinical professor of neurology at New York University School of Medicine, and disciple of the great neuropsychologist Alexander Luria: Read Interview Notes […]

  8. […] For more context on what those are, here are some quotes from my Interview with Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg: AF: Please tell us more about what the Frontal Lobes are […]

  9. […] “Exercising our brains systematically is as important as exercising our bodies. In my experience, “Use it or lose it” should really be “Use it and get more of it”.- Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg, neuropsychologist, clinical professor of neurology at New York University School of Medicine, and disciple of the great neuropsychologist Alexander Luria. Full Interview Notes. […]

  10. […] Comments: the article touches many key points. I especially enjoy the quote "To be effective, scientists say mental activity must become progressively more challenging. Otherwise, the brain adjusts and learns to perform repetitive tasks with less effort", which explains why well-designed programs can be more effective than doing crossword puzzle number 512,789. The article also relates how many retirement communities and senior centers and individuals are trying out the new brain fitness programs coming to market, and shows some healthy skepticism on the state of the research. Now, this is an invitation to the reporter to interview neuropsychologist Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg to get the full picture of the science behind the field, since these programs haven’t appeared in a vacuum. Our 10-Question Evaluation Checklist can provide useful guidance to anyone considering a program. […]

  11. Let me train you twice per week for a month, and your physical fitness will improve,
    relieve stress, build an unbelievable self confidence, tone and tighten all muscles, while learning a fantastic self defense, all fore mentioned benefits accomplished training only a total of one hour weekly.

  12. Alvaro says:

    Hello Rusty, we are on the same boat, with complementary focus. Your experience is in physical training, which we often say is one of the key pillars of brain health. Now, the point is that is not the only pillar; if you want to exercise specific brain areas, or “mental muscles”, a well-designed mental workout may be more efficient and direct. Please spend some more time on the site, and let us know how to make this point more clear.

  13. […] A highly recommended book, if you are interested in learning more about Executive Functions and Frontal Lobes, is The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind , by Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg. You can read an in-depth review here. […]

  14. Sean Pedersen says:

    A local private school is suggesting a brain based computer program they call the SMaRts program in order to teach our daughter to learn auditory receptive skills to develop her learning and language and reasoning. Our daughter is 9 years old and we believe she can benefit greatly from this program but we cannot find this program anywhere. Apparently there are different levels to complete based on accuracy, then speed, then speed and accuracy. Once a student completes a level fireworks go off on the computer screen and they are congratulated! Do you have any insight as to the name of this program, who sells it or where it can be found? Thanks, Sean

  15. Alvaro says:

    Hello Sean,

    I have never heard of “SMaRts program”. Which is surprising, because we are quite up to speed with all cognitive training literature. The closest I can think of is that the school is using Scientific Learning’s Fast ForWord, and for sone reason decided to rename it. But you should ask for the real name and specific peer-reviewed studies on its validity. Some other tips to evaluate computer-based programs:
    http://www.sharpbrains.com/blog/2007/08/16/brain-training-games-and-games/

  16. […] 3) The Brain’s Role in Trading Performance – "Dr. Goldberg, co-author of the aforementioned chapter, suggests that engaging in tasks that require use of the frontal lobes may in fact strength their function. This has profound implications for the treatment of dementia and attention deficits and may also play an important role in improving performance at such cognitive tasks as trading. " […]

  17. Ellen Nash says:

    Do you have online courses available? I am a Special Education teacher and want to learn more about working with disabilities and how the brain can be trained using “games”.

  18. Alvaro says:

    Hello Ellen,

    We offered some online webinars last month, and may be offering them again. Please subscribe to our newsletter to be notified.

    Now, the best resource for your school may be our Market Report, which provides an overview of the whole field. We offer discounts to schools and academic institutions.

    Regards

  19. Dr. Chris Wolf says:

    Dr. Goldberg is a former professor of mine. He is a virtual encyclopedia of neuroscience. I highly recommend his books which are a joy to read.

  20. Alvaro says:

    Chris, thank you for vsiting us and your comment. I couldn´t agree more!

  21. Robert Forsythe MD says:

    I would like any information on treatment of anoxic brain injury. Including erythropoetin, cognitive exercises ie computer games, physical exercise, vit B supplements, omega 3, return to work, or other treatments to shorten recovery or to improve outcome at one year.
    Thank you Robert Forsythe MD

  22. Dear Robert, we don’t offer clinical advice via this blog, I suggest you consult with a neuropsychologist to help direct the rehab of your patient. Regards

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