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Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

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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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14 Responses

  1. I would like you to add self-directed neu­ro­plas­tic­ity, Alvaro.( We talk about that at Brains on Pur­pose.) I think it is impor­tant to dis­tin­guish self-directed neu­ro­plas­tic­ity from neuroplasticity.

  2. […] Brain train­ing. It’s gonna be huge, and it’s going to make you more awe­some. See, it turns out that the brain con­tin­ues to form new con­nec­tions all through life. Luck­ily, Sharp­Brains here gives us a tour of the basic terms that are going to be buzzing around you like bees as the pop­u­lar press starts pick­ing up more on the topic of brain fitness. […]

  3. Have your read “The Com­pas­sion­ate Brain” by Ger­ald Huther? It’s very good on neu­ro­plas­tic­ity. As is Sharon Begley’s “Change Your Mind, Train Your Brain.”

  4. Alvaro says:

    Hello Stephanie, the most impor­tant thing first is for peo­ple to under­stand what neu­ro­plas­tic­ity is and how it happens…we can later talk about more spe­cific options. “self-directed” applies to many of those con­cepts, not just neu­ro­plas­tic­ity. You will enjoy my last post
    http://www.sharpbrains.com/blog/2007/09/12/every-man-can-if-he-so-desires-sculpt-his-own-brain/

    Michael, many thanks for the sug­ges­tions. I enjoyed Begley’s book; and will take a look at Huther’s. Here you have a list of books we rec­om­mend
    http://www.sharpbrains.com/get-started/books/

  5. […] Sharp Brains writes about neu­ro­plas­tic­ity and other Brain Health Glos­sary posted at Neu­ro­plas­tic­ity 101 and Brain Health Glossary […]

  6. […] Sharp Brains writes about neu­ro­plas­tic­ity and other Brain Health Glos­sary posted at Neu­ro­plas­tic­ity 101 and Brain Health Glossary […]

  7. […] blog car­ni­val index page.Share This del.icio.us |Digg it |Netscape |Newsvine |red­dit |Stum­ble­Upon |Wagg It| […]

  8. […] Alvaro Fer­nan­dez presents Neu­ro­plas­tic­ity 101 and Brain Health Glos­sary posted at Sharp­Brains, say­ing, “An overview of key find­ings, con­cepts and terms, to bet­ter under­stand all the recent news about brain health” […]

  9. […] Alvaro Fer­nan­dez presents Neu­ro­plas­tic­ity 101 and Brain Health Glos­sary posted at Sharp­Brains say­ing, “An overview of key find­ings, con­cepts and terms, to bet­ter under­stand all the recent news about brain health” […]

  10. Cindy says:

    I am always fas­ci­nated by the study of the brain. The brain’s capa­bil­i­ties are amaz­ing. I think there are a great ben­e­fits in brain exer­cises. Why wouldn’t we be able to improve our brain mus­cle?! Thank you for con­tribut­ing your arti­cle to Fit­ness for Moms Blog Car­ni­val.

  11. Alvaro says:

    Thank you, Cindy. My wife is preg­nant (our first kid) so we need to start think­ing about fit­ness for moms…

  12. […] — Neu­ro­plas­tic­ity 101 and Brain Fit­ness Glos­sary: an overview of the emerg­ing sci­ence and some key con­cepts to under­stand it. […]

  13. […] — Neu­ro­plas­tic­ity 101 and Brain Fit­ness Glos­sary: an overview of the emerg­ing sci­ence and some key con­cepts to under­stand it. […]

  14. Rob Kanzer says:

    CAN YOU FIND YOUR TYPO AS YOU SCROLL DOWN?

    WOULD YOU LIKE TO REWARD ME WITH A FREE COMPUTER GAME TO IMRPOVE MY BRAIN?

    LOVE AND KINDNESS — TROB

    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 spped, problem-solving.

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