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Neuroplasticity 101 and Brain Health Glossary

Given the grow­ing num­ber of arti­cles in the pop­u­lar press men­tion­ing words such as “neu­ro­plas­tic­ity”, “fMRI” and “cog­ni­tive reserve”, let’s review some key find­ings, con­cepts and terms.

First, a pre­scient quote by Span­ish neu­ro­sci­en­tist San­ti­ago Ramon y Cajal (1852–1934): “Every man can, if he so desires, become the sculp­tor his own brain”.

fmri.jpgThanks to new neu­roimag­ing tech­niques, regarded “as impor­tant for neu­ro­science as tele­scopes were for astron­omy, neu­ro­sci­en­tists and cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gists have been find­ing that the brain has a num­ber of “core capac­i­ties” and “men­tal mus­cles” that can be exer­cised through nov­elty, vari­ety and prac­tice, and that exer­cis­ing our brain can influ­ence the gen­er­a­tion of new neu­rons and their con­nec­tions. Brain exer­cise is being rec­og­nized, there­fore, as a crit­i­cal pil­lar of brain health, together with nutri­tion, phys­i­cal exer­cise and stress management.

Pre­vi­ous beliefs about our brain and how it works have been proven false. Some beliefs that have been debunked include claims that adult brains can not cre­ate new neu­rons (shown to be false by Berke­ley sci­en­tists Mar­ian Dia­mond and Mark Rosen­zweig, and Salk Institute’s Fred Gage), notions that work­ing mem­ory has a max­i­mum limit of 6 or 7 items (debunked by Karolin­ska Insti­tute Torkel Kling­berg), and assump­tions that the brain’s basic processes can not be reor­ga­nized by repeated prac­tice (UCSF’s Drs. Paula Tal­lal and Michael Merzenich). The “men­tal mus­cles” we can train include atten­tion, stress and emo­tional man­age­ment, mem­ory, visual/ spa­tial, audi­tory processes and lan­guage, motor coor­di­na­tion and exec­u­tive func­tions like plan­ning and problem-solving.

Men­tal stim­u­la­tion is impor­tant if done in the right sup­port­ive and engag­ing envi­ron­ment. Stanford’s Robert Sapol­sky has proven that chronic stress and cor­ti­cal inhi­bi­tion, which may be aggra­vated due to imposed men­tal stim­u­la­tion, may prove coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. Hav­ing the right moti­va­tion is essential.

A sur­pris­ing and promis­ing area of sci­en­tific inquiry is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduc­tion (MBSR). An increas­ing num­ber of neu­ro­sci­en­tists (such as Uni­ver­sity of Wisconsin-Madison’s Richard David­son) are inves­ti­gat­ing the abil­ity of trained med­i­ta­tors to develop and sus­tain atten­tion and visu­al­iza­tions and to work pos­i­tively with pow­er­ful emo­tional states and stress through the directed men­tal processes of med­i­ta­tion practices.

And now, some keywords:

Brain Fit­ness Pro­gram: struc­tured set of brain exer­cises, usu­ally computer-based, designed to train spe­cific brain areas and processes in tar­geted ways.

Chronic Stress: ongo­ing, long-term stress, which blocks the for­ma­tion of new neu­rons and neg­a­tively impacts the immune system’s defenses.

Cog­ni­tive train­ing (or Brain Fit­ness Train­ing): the field of brain exer­cises designed to help work out spe­cific “men­tal mus­cles. The prin­ci­ple under­ly­ing cog­ni­tive train­ing is to help improve “core” abil­i­ties, such as atten­tion, mem­ory, pro­cess­ing speed, problem-solving.

Cog­ni­tive Reserve (or Brain Reserve): the­ory that addresses the fact that indi­vid­u­als vary con­sid­er­ably in the sever­ity of cog­ni­tive aging and clin­i­cal demen­tia. Men­tal stim­u­la­tion, edu­ca­tion and occu­pa­tional level are believed to be major active com­po­nents of build­ing a cog­ni­tive reserve that can help resist the attacks of men­tal disease.

fMRI: func­tional mag­netic res­o­nance imag­ing (fMRI) is a non-invasive neu­roimag­ing tech­nique that enables researchers see images of chang­ing blood flow in the brain asso­ci­ated with neural activ­ity. This allows images to be gen­er­ated that reflect which struc­tures are acti­vated (and how) dur­ing per­for­mance of dif­fer­ent tasks.

Heart Rate Vari­abil­ity (HRV): describes the fre­quency of the car­diac cycle, and is one of the best pre­dic­tors of stress and anx­i­ety. Our hear rate is not “flat” or con­stant: HRV mea­sures the pat­tern of change.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduc­tion (MBSR): yoga and med­i­ta­tion prac­tices designed to enable effec­tive responses to stress, pain, and illness.

Neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis: the process by which neu­rons are cre­ated all through­out our lives.

Neu­roimag­ing: tech­niques that either directly or indi­rectly image the struc­ture, func­tion, or phar­ma­col­ogy of the brain. Recent tech­niques (such as fMRI) have enabled researchers to under­stand bet­ter the liv­ing human brain.

Neu­ro­plas­tic­ity: the brain’s abil­ity to reor­ga­nize itself by form­ing new con­nec­tions through­out life.

PubMed: very use­ful tool to search for pub­lished stud­ies. “PubMed is a ser­vice of the U.S. National Library of Med­i­cine that includes over 16 mil­lion cita­tions from MEDLINE and other life sci­ence jour­nals for bio­med­ical arti­cles back to the 1950s. PubMed includes links to full text arti­cles and other related resources.”

Work­ing mem­ory: the abil­ity to keep infor­ma­tion cur­rent for a short period while using this infor­ma­tion. Work­ing mem­ory is used for con­trol­ling atten­tion, and deficits in work­ing mem­ory capac­ity lead to atten­tion prob­lems. Recent research has proven that work­ing mem­ory train­ing is pos­si­ble and help­ful for peo­ple with ADD/ ADHD.

Any other key­word you would like explained?

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