Apr 24, 2009
By: Alvaro Fernandez
You may be reading all about brain fitness and brain training. It seems every week brings a new barrage of articles and studies which often contradict what you read the month before: Does Gingko Biloba help delay Alzheimer’s Disease? Can physical exercise help you stay sharp as you age? Which computer-based “brain fitness programs”, if any, are worth your money?
All this coverage reflects very exciting scientific findings but also poses a key dilemma: How to become an informed lifelong learner and consumer when there are few and contradictory authoritative guidelines?
The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness (to be published in May 2009; $24.95) aims to fill that void. This guide is the result of over a year of extensive research including more than a hundred interviews with scientists, professionals and consumers, and a deep literature review. Below you have some of the main findings from our effort. The guide not only covers these aspects in more depth and offers practical guidance, but also includes 18 interviews with prominent scientists to help you understand the research better.
Can we introduce you to your Brain?
The Guide will start at the obvious starting point: The Human Brain. In order to make informed decisions about brain health, one needs to first understand the basic organization of the human brain and how it tends to change as we get older.
* The brain is composed of a number of regions serving distinct functions. Forget IQ: our life and productivity depend on a variety of brain functions, not just one.
* There is nothing inherently fixed in the trajectory of how brain functions evolve as we age. Your lifestyle, actions, and even thoughts, do matter.
The 4 Pillars of Brain Maintenance
Neuroplasticity is the lifelong capacity of the brain to change and rewire itself in response to the stimulation of learning and experience. The latest scientific research shows that specific lifestyles and actions can, no matter our age, improve the health and level of functioning of our brains.
What factors seem to have the most influence? As described in the second chapter of the Guide, a brain-friendly lifestyle should include at least:
* Balanced nutrition: As a general guideline, what is good for the body and heart is also good for the brain. Gingko Biloba and other supplements do not seem to bring the benefits people expect.
* Stress management: Chronic stress reduces and can even inhibit neurogenesis (the creation of new neurons) and affects memory and other brain functions. It is then very important to learn how to manage stress.
* Physical exercise: Physical exercise improves cognitive functioning through increased blood supply and growth hormone levels in the brain. Of all the types of physical exercise, cardiovascular exercise that get the heart beating has been shown to have the greatest effect.
* Brain exercise: Brain exercise strengthens the synapses or connections between neurons, thus improving neuron survival and cognitive functioning. Cumulated mental stimulation throughout our lives (via education, our jobs, leisure activities) can help build a neuroprotective Cognitive Reserve.
Mental Exercise vs. Mental Activity
The third chapter of the Guide shows why mental exercise goes beyond mental activity. We define Mental Exercise (or “Brain training”) as the structured use of cognitive exercises or techniques aimed at improving specific brain functions.
Brain training can be delivered in a number of ways:
* Cognitive therapy (CT): the way we perceive our experiences influences our behaviors, and one can learn cognitive skills to modify his or her thinking and resulting actions. CT has been around for decades, but there is more recent research showing the specific brain benefits from the technique.
* Meditation: has been shown to improve specific cognitive functions such as attention and emotional self-regulation.
* Biofeedback: these devices can measure and graphically display various physiological variables such as heart rate variability, so that users can learn to self-adjust and identify and manage emotions better.
* Brain Fitness Software: these are fully automated applications designed to assess and enhance specific cognitive abilities. This is the area that has exploded since 2007 – and where we observe the most confusion.
The Value and Limitations of Brain Training Software
Do brain training software products really “work”? Well, it depends on which product, and for whom and for what. To help answering this question, Chapter 4 of the Guide will offer a detailed and easy to read review of the recent scientific evidence.
Some key concepts to help you navigate the existing and future products are that:
* Different people face different cognitive demands, and have different starting points, so there is no general solution or magic pill for everyone and everything.
* As in physical fitness, you must ask yourself: What are the goals I want to accomplish? What specific cognitive functions am I trying to improve on? In what timeframe? What budget can I spend on this?
The Guide includes 10 questions to help consumers evaluate software programs, and offers a detailed overview (including targeted brain functions, targeted users, pricing, scientific evidence) of the:
* Top 8 overall brain maintenance products.
* Top 8 targeted brain workout products.
* Top 5 stress management products.
Ready for the Future?
Chapter 5 and 6 of the Guide describe important trends to get you ready for what is coming.
The same way there are different reasons to exercise our bodies (to run a marathon, to stay functionally fit, to lose weight…), there are different reasons to exercise our brains. Accordingly, we are seeing a growing focus on mental exercise in a variety of domains: healthy aging, seniors housing, rehabilitation from brain disorders (such as ADHD and strokes/ Traumatic Brain Injury), schools, etc.
We predict the Culture of Brain fitness to go mainstream with broad government initiatives and a better integration of physical and mental exercise. Better tools to assess cognitive functions and to improve brain functions are under way. More actors will take brain fitness into consideration – think of physicians, psychologists, insurance companies, Corporate America.
Opening the Debate
We are aware that the Guide may provide many answers…but also many new questions, which is good to help you evaluate options, and also to get your own brain working!
The Guide ends with a challenge to readers: Can you, the ambassadors of brain fitness and lifelong learning, discuss these findings and some proposed questions with your friends, families, colleagues, book club members?
Please stay tuned to be among the first to know when the guide will be released. If you haven’t by now, please make sure to subscribe to our free monthly Newsletter.