Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


Working Memory Training can Influence Brain Biochemistry

I wanted to alert you to a very interesting finding published in a recent issue of Science, one of the world’s leading scientific journals.

The study was led by Dr. Torkel Klingberg and his colleagues from the Karolinska Institute Torkel Klingbergin Sweden. The goal was to learn whether Working Memory Training is associated with changes in brain biochemistry, thus suggesting a mechanism by which training may lead to enhanced working memory capacity and a reduction in attention problems. Thus, although Working Memory Training has previously shown promising results as a treatment for working memory and attention difficulties, this was a basic science study rather than a treatment study.

The major finding was that increased working memory capacity following training was associated with changes in brain biochemistry. Specifically, the researchers found changes in the density and binding potential of cortical D1 dopamine receptors in brain regions that are activated during working memory tasks.

Results from this study suggest a biological basis for the improvement in working memory capacity and reductions i Read the rest of this entry »

Cognitive Training (Cogmed) Changes the Brain More Than We Thought

Cognitive Training Can Alter Biochemistry Of The Brain (Science Daily)

– “Researchers at the Swedish medical university Karolinska Institute have shown for the first time that the active training of the working memory brings about visible changes in the number of dopamine receptors in the human brain.”

– “”Brain biochemistry doesn’t just underpin our mental activity; our mental activity and thinking process can also affect the biochemistry,” says Professor Torkel Klingberg, who led the study.”

– “Changes in the number of dopamine receptors in a person doesn’t give us the key to poor memory,” says Professor Lars Farde, one of the researchers who took part in the study. “We also have to ask if the differences could have been caused by a lack of memory training or other environmental factors. Maybe we’ll be able to find new, more effective treatments that combine medication and cognitive training, in which case we’re in extremely interesting territory.”

Comment:  couldn’t agree more with “Maybe we’ll be able to find new, more effective treatments that combine medication and cognitive training, in which case we’re in extremely interesting territory.” This study adds a very important angle to the growing literature on working memory training, showing a more fundamental, structural impact, that once thought (such as the well-known effect that “cells that fire together wire together”). The computerized cognitive program used in the study was Cogmed working memory training.

More on Torkel Klingberg’s research:

– Article written by Torkel Klingberg on The Overflowing Brain & Information Overload

– His recent book, which was The SharpBrains Most Important Book of 2008: The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory

– 2006 Interview with Dr. Klingberg: Working Memory Training and RoboMemo: Interview with Dr. Torkel Klingberg

Use It or Lose It, and Cells that Fire together Wire together

Everyone has heard of “Use It or Lose It.” Now…what is “It”?

Last week I gave a talk at the Italian Consulate in San Francisco, and one of the areas attendees seemed to enjoy the most was learning about what our brains are and how they work, peaking into the “black box” of our minds. Without understanding a few basics, how can we make good decisions about brain health?

At a quick glance:, the brain is composed of 3 “brains” or main sub-systems, each named after the evolutionary moment in which the sub-system is believed to have appeared. Read the rest of this entry »

Darwin’s adult neuroplasticity

Charles Darwin 1880Charles Darwin (1809-1882)’s autobiography (full text free online) includes some very insightful refections on the evolution of his own mind during his middle-age, showcasing the power of the brain to rewire itself through experience (neuroplasticity) during our whole lifetimes-not just when we are youngest.

He wrote these paragraphs at the age of 72 (I have bolded some key sentences for emphasis, the whole text makes great reading):

“I have said that in one respect my mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years. Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music. Music generally sets me thinking too energetically on what I have been at work on, instead of giving me pleasure. I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did. On the other hand, novels which are works of the imagination, though not of a very high order, have been for years a wonderful relief and pleasure to me, and I often bless all novelists. A surprising number have been read aloud to me, and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily– against which a law ought to be passed. A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if a pretty woman all the better.

This curious and lamentable loss of the higher aesthetic tastes is all the odder, as books on history, biographies, and travels (independently of any scientific facts which they may contain), and essays on all sorts of subjects interest me as much as ever they did. My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. A man with Read the rest of this entry »

Information Overload? Seven Learning and Productivity Tips

We often talk in this blog about how to expand fundamental abilities or cognitive functions, like attention, or memory, or emotional self-regulation. Think of them as muscles one can train. Now, it is also important to think of ways one can use our existing muscles more efficiently.

Let’s talk about how to manage better the overwhelming amount of information available these days.

Hundreds of thousands of new books, analyst reports, scientific papers published every year. Millions of websites at our googletips. The flow of data, information and knowledge is growing exponentially, stretching the capacity of our not-so-evolved brains. We can complain all day that we cannot process ALL this flow. Now, let me ask, should we even try?

Probably not. Why engage in a losing proposition. Instead, let me offer a few strategies that can help manage this flow of information better.

1. Prioritize: strategic consulting firms such as McKinsey and BCG train their staff in the so-called 80/20 rule: 80% of effects are caused by the top 20% of causes. In a company, 80% sales may come from 20% of the accounts. Implication: focus on that top 20%; don’t spend too much time on the 80% that only account for 20%.

2. Leverage a scientific mindset. Scientists shift through tons of data in efficient, goal-oriented ways. How do they do it? By first stating a hypothesis and then looking for data. For example, an untrained person could spend weeks “boiling the ocean”, trying to read as much as possible, in a very fragmentary way, about how physical exercise affects our brain. A trained scientist would first define clear hypotheses and preliminary assumptions, such as “Physical exercise can enhance the brain’s ability to generate new neurons” or “Those new neurons appear in the hippocampus”, and then look specifically for data that corroborates or refutes those sentences, enabling him or her to refine the hypotheses further, based on accumulated knowledge, in a virtuous learning cycle.

3. Beat your enemies-like excessive TV watching. Watching TV five hours a day has an effect on your brain: it trains one’s brain to become a visual, usually unreflective, passive recipient of information. You may have heard the expression “Cells that fire together wire together”. Our brains are composed of billions of neurons, each of which can have thousand of connections to other neurons. Any thing we do in life is going to activate a specific networks of neurons. Visualize a million neurons firing at the same time when you watch a TV program. Now, the more TV you watch, the more those neurons will fire together, and therefore the more they will wire together (meaning that the connections between them become, physically, stronger), which then creates automatic-like reactions. A heavy TV-watcher is making himself or herself more passive, unreflective, person. Exactly the opposite of what one needs to apply the other tips described here. Continue Reading

Brain Fitness and in the Press

Fitness TrainerGrowing media attention on the brain fitness field. At least on the “Healthy Aging” segment (I predict the media with catch up soon with developments in other areas, from cognitive training for kids and adults with ADD/ ADHD to stroke and TBI rehabilitation, to peak performance for corporate training).

First, a superb article by Leslie Walker at the Washington Post: Cross-Training Your Brain to Maintain Its Strength

Quotes:  “A growing body of research suggests that mental activity in middle age and earlier can help later in life. As a result, Web sites such as are springing up to offer online games to people of all ages, while blogs like provide commentary on the fledgling industry.” (Note: we can also provide commentary on the commentary!)

“People who engage in very challenging tasks — not just in work but during leisure activities such as reading, crossword puzzles, bridge, chess and travel — tend to slow down their mental aging process very significantly,” says Breznitz, who is also a member of Israel’s legislature and has developed a brain-training program called MindFit.”

“Also contributing to the brain workout boom are state-of-the-art imaging techniques that have allowed scientists to validate a theory developed decades ago. By taking detailed pictures of brain neurons, scientists watch parts of the brain that had seemed dormant light up and assume new responsibilities in response to stimuli. Theoretically, this means brain decay can be halted or even reversed.”

“The brain is constantly rewiring and recalibrating itself in response to what you do,” says Henry Mahncke, whComputer Classroomo holds a PhD in neuroscience and is vice president of Posit Science, the San Francisco developer of the Brain Fitness software. “It remakes itself into a more efficient operation to do the things you ask it to do.”

Comments: the article touches many key points. I especially enjoy the quote “To be effective, scientists say mental activity must become progressively more challenging. Otherwise, the brain adjusts and learns to perform repetitive tasks with less effort”, a key message I make often in my lectures to explain why well-designed programs can be more effective than doing crossword puzzle number 512,789. The article also relates how many retirement communities and senior centers and individuals are trying out the new brain fitness programs coming to market, and shows some healthy skepticism on the state of the research. Now, this is an invitation to the reporter to interview neuropsychologist Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg to get the full picture of the science behind the field, since these programs haven’t appeared in a vacuum. Our 10-Question Evaluation Checklist can provide useful guidance to anyone considering a program.

Boomers use online brain games to stave off dementia (AccountingWeb)

Quotes: “The Internet offers a plethora of brain games for those who don’t subscribe to a daily newspaper or don’t want to purchase games. AARP, for example, offers plenty of free games on its site. More games appear at, including a page that contains the Top Ten Neuroscience Brainteasers, and you can sign up to have the College Board e-mail you the SAT question of the day.”

“The generation that refuses to age is not going to sit back and wait for Alzheimer’s Disease and other signs of dementia to take hold. Instead, savvy Baby Boomers are expanding their minds (no, not the way they did in the 60s) with the aid of the computer, puzzles, and games. A brain health movement is sweeping Read the rest of this entry »

Brain Exercise and Brain Fitness July Monthly Digest

We often are told that we offer too much content for you to read given various time pressures… but it is tough for us to write less given the wealth of areas we cover around cognitive and emotional training.

To make your life easier (and please feel free to give us feedback!), what we will do is to offer a Monthly Digest of Most Popular Blog Posts. Today, August 1st, we will list the most popular July posts. Consider it your monthly Brain Exercise Magazine 🙂

(Also, remember that you can subscribe to receive our RSS feed, check our Topics section, and subscribe to our monthly newsletter at the top of this page).

News you can use

Trading performance psychology and self-talk

Stress Management for Lawyers

Mental Training for Gratitude and Altruism

Brain Fitness/ Training Market News

MarketWatch on Beating forgetfulness and boosting the brain

Nintendo BrainAge, Lumosity, Happy Neuron, MyBrainTrainer…

Brain Health through Serious Games and Brain Exercise

Brain Fitness Workshops

Osher Lifelong Learning Institute Brain Fitness class at UC Berkeley

Healthy Aging

Interview with Neuroscientist Yaakov Stern: Build Your Cognitive Reserve

Judson Laipply’s Dancing Brain

Jack and Elaine LaLanne and Brain Health

Exercise Your Brain! Enjoy Learning!

Attention Deficits

Read the rest of this entry »

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