Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

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News on physical, cognitive and emotional fitness

Brain Health NewsNice weekend reading material – recent news reiforcing emerging trends on physical, cognitive and emotional fitness, but with new twists.

Fit teens could be smarter teens

“Researchers from Sweden and USC examined data on 1.2 million Swedish men born between 1950 and 1976 who also enlisted for the country’s mandatory military service. They looked at the participants’ global intelligence scores as well as logical, visuospatial, verbal and technical scores. The greater the cardiovascular fitness, the higher the cognitive scores at age 18. The association between muscle strength and global intelligence, in contrast, was weak.”

UPMC Health Plan Offers Brain Fitness Software to Improve Health

“UPMC Health Plan announced today that it has signed an agreement to offer award-winning brain fitness software from Posit Science®, at no cost, to all UPMC for Life Medicare Advantage members. This brain training program is a new part of the UPMC Health Plan wellness services, which focus on both mind and body fitness.

The brain fitness software, known as the Insight(TM) Brain Fitness Program, is a suite of five game-like computer exercises that make brain training challenging and effective. The program engages the brain’s natural plasticity (the brain’s ability to rewire itself) to improve basic brain function.”

Brain-fitness industry grows as baby-boomers work to stay sharp.

“When we’re younger we’re learning quite intensively,” she said. “By middle age, we’re not learning intensively anymore and just using skills we’ve already mastered. That’s why it’s important to stretch your brain.”

Brain fitness games also have the potential to improve one’s emotional health, said Mark Baldwin, a psychology professor at McGill University in Montreal.

Baldwin has developed a number of computer games based on keeping a brain active physiologically, to improve it psychologically.

“It’s about practising or using games to train beneficial habits of thought, ” he said.

Does cognitive training work? (For Whom? For What?)

The growing field of cognitive training (one of the tools for brain fitness) can appear very confusing as the media keeps reporting contradictory claims. These claims are often based on press releases, without a deeper evaluation of the scientific evidence.

Let’s take a couple of recent examples, in successive days:

“It doesn’t work!” type of headline:
Reuters (Feb. 10, 2009)  Formal brain exercise won’t help healthy seniors: research
Healthy older people shouldn’t bother spending money on computer games and websites promising to ward off mental decline, the author of a review of scientific evidence for the benefits of these “brain exercise” programs says.

It works! type of headline:
ScienceDaily (Feb. 11, 2009)  “Computer Exercises Improve Memory And Attention, Study Suggests”
According to the researchers, participants who used the Brain Fitness Program also scored as well as those ten years younger, on average, on memory and attention tests for which they did not train.

So, does structured brain exercise / cognitive training work or not?

The problem may in fact reside in asking this very question in the first place, as Alvaro pointed out a while ago in his article Alzheimer’s Disease: too serious to play with headlines.

We need a more nuanced set of questions.

Why? Because:
1. Cognition is made of several different abilities (working memory, attention, executive functions such as decision-making, etc)
2. Available training programs do not all train the same abilities
3. Users of training programs do not all have the same needs or goals
4. We need to differentiate between enhancing cognitive functions and delaying the onset of cognitive deficits such as Alzheimer’s.

Let’s illustrate these points, by Read the rest of this entry »

Brain Training: It Works, and It Doesn’t Work

The IMPACT study which we reported on in December 2007, funded by Posit Science, conducted by the Mayo Clinic and USC Davis, has just announced publication at the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Reference:

– Smith et al. A Cognitive Training Program Designed Based on Principles of Brain Plasticity: Results from the Improvement in Memory with Plasticity-based Adaptive Cognitive Training Study. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, April 2009.

Computer Exercises Improve Memory And Attention, Study Suggests (Science Daily)

– “The Improvement in Memory with Plasticity-based Adaptive Cognitive Training (IMPACT) study was funded by the Posit Science Corporation, which owns the rights to the Brain Fitness Program, tested in the study.”

– “Of the 487 healthy adults over the age of 65 who participated in a randomized controlled trial, half used the Brain Fitness Program for 40 hours over the course of eight weeks. The Brain Fitness Program consists of six audio exercises done on a computer, and is intended to “retrain the brain to discriminate fine distinctions in sound, and do it in a way that keeps the user engaged,” Zelinski explained.” The other half of participants spent an equal amount of time learning from educational DVDs followed by quizzes.

Comment: this is a very interesting study, in that it shows both that cognitive training works, and that it doesn’t work.

What do I mean? Read the rest of this entry »

Cognitive screenings and Alzheimer’s Disease

The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America just released a thoughtful report advocating for widespread cognitive screenings after the age of 65 (55 given the right conditions).

According to the press release,

– “The report shatters unsubstantiated criticism and instead emphasizes the safety and cost-effectiveness of these tools and calls on Congress to develop a national dementia screening policy.”

– “Lifting the barriers to early detection is long overdue, Hall said. “Conversations about brain health are not taking place. We must educate and empower consumers to talk openly about memory concerns, particularly with primary care providers, so they get the attention and quality of life they deserve.

– “Demand for screenings is evidenced by the success of AFA’s recent sixth annual National Memory Screening Day held on November 18, during which an estimated 50,000 people were given free confidential memory screenings at nearly 2,200 community sites nationwide. During last year’s event, approximately 16 percent of individuals who had a face-to-face screening scored positive and were referred to their primary care providers for follow-up. An AFA survey of participants revealed that fewer than one in four with self-reported memory complaints had previously discussed them with their physicians despite recent visits.”

Excellent report available: here

Please note that the Alzheimer’s Association recently argued in the opposite direction (no screenings) – which probably triggered this response.

We see emerging trends that suggest the position in favor of cognitive assessments may in fact gather momentum over the next few years: widespread computerized cognitive screenings in the US Army, insurance companies like OptumHealth adding such tools to its clinical decision-making systems, polls such as the American Society of Aging’s a couple of years ago indicating a very strong demand for an “annual mental check-up”, the availability of useful assessment tools and research-based preventive advice.

The starting point is to understand what those assessments are NOT: they are not diagnostic tools. When used properly, they can be used as a baseline to track performance in a variety of cognitive domains over time, so that both the individual AND the physician are not blinded by a one-time assessment, comparing an individual with his or her peers (instead of his or her past performance) when serious symptoms have frequently already been going on for a while.

Our contributor  Dr. Joshua Silverman, from Albert Einstein College of Medicine, recently generated a nice debate on the topic by asking our readers their reaction to these 3 questions: Read the rest of this entry »

Towards a Healthy Living & Cognitive Health Agenda

Here you have the November edition of our monthly newsletter covering cognitive health and brain fitness topics. Please remember that you can subscribe to receive this Newsletter by email, simply by brain fitness and health newslettersubmitting your email at the top of this page.

Thank you for your interest, attention and participation in our SharpBrains community. As always, we appreciate your comments and suggestions.

Summit of the Global Agenda

How can we persuade business leaders, policy-makers and researchers of the urgency to develop and promote an integrated “Healthy Living” agenda focused on maintaining lifelong physical and cognitive health, vs. the usual mindset focused on dealing with specific diseases and problems once they arise?

In The Future of the Aging Society: Burden or Human Capital?, I summarize some of the key themes discussed at the World Economic Forum event in Dubai on November 7-9th. The world is aging – and in healthier ways. But our healthcare and retirement systems are on track to go bankrupt – their premises are outdated. The current disease-based research agenda compounds the problem. Solutions? 1) Promote Healthy Lifestyles that help Maintain Physical and Cognitive Functional Abilities, 2) Redesign Environments to Foster Health, Engagement and Financial Security, 3) Develop an Integrated Healthy Living & Aging Research Agenda. Specifically, we could work with the UN and Global 2000 companies to move forward a new agenda.

Planet Earth 2.0: A New Operating System: Imagine seeing a top sheik in Dubai, wrapped in traditional Arab clothing, exclaim “Yes We Can (a la Obama) in front of the 800 global experts, adding that “we build the future with our own hands. Some of the attendants of the World Economic Forum’s Summit of the Global Agenda urged us to “reboot” the system. More than a “reboot”, we may have to upgrade to a new global “Yes We Can” operating system.

Brain Fitness Research

Training Attention and Emotional Self-Regulation: Dr. Michael Posner, a prominent  cognitive neuroscientist and first recipient of the Dogan Prize, grants us a fascinating interview on what attention, self-regulation, and effortful control are, and how to improve them using software, meditation, and parenting. In his words, “we have found no ceiling for abilities such as attention, including among adults. The more training (…) the higher the results.”

Neuroplasticity and the Brain That Changes Itself: Laurie Bartels reviews the excellent book by Norman Doidge, explaining that “the neuroscience behind Doidge’s book involves neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to rewire itself. This means that the brain  is our intelligence,  is not something fixed in concrete but rather a changing, learning entity.”

Can We Pick Your Brain re: Cognitive Assessments?: In our view, a critical component in the maturity of the brain fitness market will be the availability of inexpensive, valid and reliable objective cognitive assessments,  to help measure how our brain functions change over time and identify priorities for targeted improvements. Dr. Joshua Steinerman asks if you would be up for them?

Use It (Properly) or Lose It

Memory Problems? Perhaps you are Multi-tasking: Dr. Bill Klemm tells us that “Multi-tasking violates everything we know about how memory works.” He explains that “(multi-tasking) probably does make learning less tedious, but it clearly makes learning less efficient and less effective.”

Physical and mental exercise to prevent cognitive decline: The American Medical News, a weekly newspaper for physicians published by the American Medical Association, just published an excellent article on the importance of physical and mental exercise. We are very happy to see efforts like these to train physicians and health professionals in general,  given that most of them were trained under a very different understanding of the brain than the one we have today.

Brain Fitness 2: Sight & Sound: PBS recently announced the second installment of their popular Brain Fitness Program show, to start airing soon.

MetaCarnival #1: a conversation across the blogosphere: We often insist on “Novelty, Variety and Challenge” as key ingredients for good “brain exercise”. There are many ways to mix those ingredients – you may enjoy this one, the first interdisciplinary gathering of blogs and blog carnivals covering health, science, anthropology, general advice and more.

Brain Teasers

Top 15 Brain Teasers and Games for Mental Exercise: Over the last 2 years we have published close to 100 puzzles, teasers, riddles, and every kind of mental exercise (without counting our in-depth interviews with top neuroscientists). Which ones have proven most stimulating for you. Let us know. Here is a selection of our Top 15 teasers.

Final Details

That’s all for now. Next month, we will be offering another great selection of articles: Dr. Andrew Newberg will discuss the brain value of meditation,  Dr. David Rabiner will review a recent study on how neurofeedback may assist in the diagnostic of attention deficits, and much more.

Please share this newsletter with your friends and colleagues if you haven’t done so already.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

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