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Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

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Cognitive Neuroscience @ MIT OpenCourseWare

The great MIT OpenCourseWare initiative offers a lot of free materials on Brain and Cognitive Sciences. You can browse lecture notes, readings, and more on a variety of psychology and neuroscience courses.

  • “The human brain is the most complex, sophisticated, and powerful information-processing device known. To study its complexities, the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology combines the experimental technologies of neurobiology, neuroscience, and psychology, with the theoretical power that comes from the fields of computational neuroscience and cognitive science.”
  • “The Department was founded by Hans-Lukas Teuber in 1964 as a Department of Psychology, with the then-radical vision that the study of brain and mind are inseparable. Today, at a time of increasing specialization and fragmentation, our goal remains to understand cognition- its processes, and its mechanisms at the level of molecules, neurons, networks of neurons, and cognitive modules. We are unique among neuroscience and cognitive science departments in our breadth, and in the scope of our ambition. We span a very large range of inquiry into the brain and mind, and our work bridges many different levels of analysis including molecular, cellular, systems, computational and cognitive approaches.”

There is a fascinating new course titled A Clinical Approach to the Human Brain, Fall 2006, including Topics and Lecture Summaries such as

  • “Neurogenesis: Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks. A surprising discovery in the last few years in neurobiology has been that neurons are born, neurogenesis, in the adult mammalian brain. Initially, this had been shown in animals and, more recently, in the humans hippocampus, the site of declarative memory formation. (See Greenough). Furthermore, the rate of neurogenesis in animals has been enhanced by experience, both physical activity and living in enriched environments (See Scientific American article by Gage). Provocative clinical human studies suggest that memory loss (dementia) can be forestalled by rich cognitive activities e.g. board games, crossword puzzles. These animal and clinical studies may lead to a strategy for preventing dementia in humans.”
  • Neuroplasticity in the Adult: Primary motor cortex in the frontal lobe is organized in such a way that the left side of the brain controls the right body and that the foot neurons are near the crown of the head and the hand is midway between the crown and the ear and the mouth is just above the ear (Homunculus). These neurons control individual movements according to this motor map of the cerebral cortex. The map was first discovered by Dr. Wilder Penfield a neurosurgeon who stimulated the brain in awake patients undergoing epilepsy surgery. He was able to map different parts of the brain to different motor and sensory functions. The premotor cortex lies in front (anterior) to the motor cortex and its role is to plan voluntary movements. It is activated in mental rehearsing of a movement such as piano playing or pole vaulting before the actual execution. Several studies have shown that even in adulthood the motor map of the brain can be modified. Studies in animals have shown that increased finger use enlarges the area of the “brain real estate” devoted to those fingers. In humans, Elbert has shown in string players that the size of the brain cortex, on the right side of the brain, devoted to the left hand is enlarged. Alternatively, if a finger or limb is amputated the adjacent functional areas “invade” the unused area and make use of it; another example of competition between neurons and the adage “use it or lose it”. Recent studies using a technique called constraint behavior therapy actually limits the use of a good limb to increase the function of the impaired limb such as in cases of cerebral palsy with promising results. This is an example of basic science leading to important clinical discoveries and benefits to patients.”
  • “Can Thinking Prevent Dementia?: There is considerable hope, and some limited evidence, that dementia can be avoided or delayed by engaging in cognitively stimulating activities (eg. crossword puzzles). This hope relies upon the ‘mutability’ or plasticity of the adult brain. If such a benefit occurs it may be based upon neurogenesis or plasticity of synapses. The clinical evidence is limited and based upon observational studies (See Verghese and Wilson) for the most part. The one prospective randomized trial (Ball) showed that engaging in cognitively stimulating activities improves testing results but does not change the performance of activities of daily living. The editorial by Coyle reviews the evidence. The major limitation of these studies is the question of whether it is the cognitive activities themselves which prevent dementia or whether individuals who at baseline perform more cognitive leisure activities do so because they have more cognitive reserves and, therefore, have a reduced risk of dementia. An oft-quoted retrospective study of nuns looked at the complexity of language structure which young nun novitiates had used to determine if it predicted later dementia; the authors found that those nuns which had used complex language structure had a lower late-life risk of dementia. The implication being that the ability to use complex language structure at a young age reflected increased cognitive reserves which somehow is associated with a reduced risk of late life dementia. Other studies have reported that there is a lower frequency of dementia in those with a higher level of education. Again, the mechanism of this is unknown but it is another incentive to study. For the athletes in the class, there may be an alternative; exercise has also been found in some animal studies to enhance neurogenesis. Recall that neurogenesis, which occurs in the hippocampus, may be associated with enhanced memory function. We will focus on the abstracts and the baseline characteristics of the clinical studies, including their limitations, and discuss the Coyle editorial. This clinical topic along with the animal studies from the neurogenesis literature is another suggestion for a final paper.”

Enjoy!

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  1. Sounds like the beginning of ground breaking work on dementia.

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