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Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


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.


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.


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.


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.


- 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:

  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.


  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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