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Executive Functions, Education and Alzheimer’s Disease

I just read a very interesting article in Newsweek: Executive Functions: The School Skill That May Matter More Than IQ. A few quotes:

– “But recent advances in psychology and brain science are now suggesting that a child’s ability to inhibit distracting thoughts and stay focused may be a fundamental cognitive skill, one that plays a big part in academic success from The Executive Brain by Elkhonon Goldbergpreschool on. Indeed, this and closely related skills may be more important than traditional IQ in predicting a child’s school performance.”

– “EF (executive functions) comprises not only effortful control and cognitive focus but also working memory and mental flexibility the ability to adjust to change, to think outside the box.”

– “When the teacher holds up a circle they clap, with a triangle they hop, and so forth. The kids are taught to talk themselves through the mental exercise: “OK, now clap.” “Twirl now.” This has been shown to flex and enhance the brain’s ability to switch gears, to suppress one piece of information and sub in a new one. It takes discipline; it’s the elementary school equivalent of saying “I really need stop thinking about next week’s vacation and focus on this report.”

The main points: executive functions are crucial for success in life, AND they can be trained. I couldn’t agree more with the article in that cognitive training should be part of the education curriculum and receive more research dollars to determine exactly how to best do so.

I read another very interesting article on Alzheimer’s Disease. Which may look like a completely different topic than the one above…but please bear with me. There is more in common than may meet the eye.

Earlier diagnosis giving Alzheimer’s a new voice (Yahoo News):

– “Hayen is part of a growing new movement in Alzheimer’s: Patients diagnosed early enough to still be articulate and demand better care and better research.”

– “They are giving a voice to a disease whose victims until now have remained largely silent, and powerless.”

– “It’s a shift with big ramifications.”

– “Diagnosis can be difficult. There is no single test for dementia. Memory problems aren’t always even the obvious first symptom; Hayen cites unprovoked anger and disorientation.”

Those symptoms can be seen as deficits in executive functions, common in Alzheimer’s patients, and the brain’ frontal lobes get weakened.

What are Executive Functions? What are the Frontal Lobes? Executive Functions are a set of cognitive skills involved in planning and self-regulation, mostly involving our frontal lobes (behind our forehead). This area is the most recent part of our brains in evolutionary terms, and the least hard-wired (or the most “plastic”). The latest to mature, the earliest to decline. Some executive functions include:

– Planning: foresight in devising multi-step strategies.

– Flexibility: capacity for quickly switching to the appropriate mental mode.

– Inhibition: the ability to withstand distraction, and internal urges.

– Anticipation: prediction based on pattern recognition.

– Critical evaluation: logical analysis.

– Working memory: capacity to hold and manipulate information “on-line” in our minds in real time.

– Fuzzy logic: capacity to choose with incomplete information.

– Divided attention: ability to pay attention to more than one thing at a time.

– Decision-making: both quality and speed.The Executive Brain by Elkhonon Goldberg

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 our co-founder Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg. You can read an in-depth interview with him here.

What is exciting about the Cognitive/ Brain Fitness field is the growing amount of research and interventions to improve cognitive skills. I am interviewing Dr. Arthur Kramer in a few days. He will tell us about his research on how to improve executive functions. Please stay tuned!

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2 Responses

  1. etsmith says:

    Executive function is significantly compromised in advanced stages of Parkinson’s Disease as well. EF deficits cause PD patients to need home and nursing home care sooner than would otherwise be the case because EF affects the ability to take medications on a schedule, use assistive devices and respond to periods of instability by altering medication and movement.

  2. Alvaro says:

    Thank you for that information. Have you seen any intervention that can slow down the decline in executive functions among Parkinson’s patients?

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