Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

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Digital Games for Physical, Cognitive and Behavioral Health

The Robert Wood John­son Foun­da­tion (RWJF) just announced more than 200px-Dance_Dance_Revolution_Extreme_arcade_machine_left_side_stage$1.85 mil­lion in grants for research teams to study how dig­i­tal games can improve play­ers’ health behav­iors and out­comes (both brain-based and behavioral).

The press release: Nine Lead­ing Research Teams Selected to Study How Dig­i­tal Games Improve Play­ers’ Health

  • Dig­i­tal games are inter­ac­tive and expe­ri­en­tial, and so they can engage peo­ple in pow­er­ful ways to enhance learn­ing and health behav­ior change, espe­cially when they are designed on the basis of well-researched strate­gies,” said (UC Santa Barbara’s Dr. Debra) Lieberman.
  • The pace of growth and inno­va­tion in dig­i­tal games is incred­i­ble, and we see tremen­dous poten­tial to design them to help peo­ple stay healthy or man­age chronic con­di­tions like dia­betes or Parkinson’s dis­ease. How­ever, we need to know more about what works and what does not — and why,” said Paul Tarini, team direc­tor for RWJF’s Pio­neer Port­fo­lio. “Health Games Research is a major invest­ment to build a research base for this dynamic young field. Fur­ther, the insights and ideas that flow from this work will help us con­tinue to expand our imag­i­na­tion of what is pos­si­ble in this arena.”

All 9 stud­ies sound inter­est­ing, 3 of them are closer to what we track:

  1. Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, San Fran­cisco (San Fran­cisco, CA) A Video Game to Enhance Cog­ni­tive Health in Older Adults. As peo­ple age, they lose some of their abil­ity to sus­tain their atten­tion and to focus their atten­tion on their main task while ignor­ing dis­trac­tions. This study aims to improve these and other related cog­ni­tive skills by using a dri­ving game in which Read the rest of this entry »

Neuroscience, brain development and cognitive health

Round-up of recent arti­cles on neu­ro­science, brain devel­op­ment and cog­ni­tive health:

Encephalon 68: A car­ni­val of neu­ro­science:

Chris hosts a great col­lec­tion of neu­ro­science and psy­chol­ogy posts in his sig­na­ture Q&A style.

Bilin­gual Babies Get Head Start — Before They Can Talk:

- Unlike the mono­lin­gual group, the bilin­gual group was able to suc­cess­fully learn a new sound type and use it to pre­dict where each char­ac­ter would pop up.

- The bilin­gual babies’ skill applies to more than just switch­ing between lan­guages. Mehler likened this appar­ently enhanced cog­ni­tive abil­ity to a brain select­ing “the right tool for the right oper­a­tion” also called exec­u­tive function.

- In this basic process, the brain, ever flex­i­ble, nim­bly switches from one learned response to another as sit­u­a­tions change.

- Mono­lin­gual babies hone this abil­ity later in their young lives, Mehler suggests.”

Study shows how kids’ stress hurts mem­ory:

Now, research is pro­vid­ing what could be cru­cial clues to explain how child­hood poverty trans­lates into dim­mer chances of suc­cess: Chronic stress from grow­ing up poor appears to have a direct impact on the brain, leav­ing chil­dren with impair­ment in at least one key area — work­ing memory.”

Return­ing troops get­ting tested for brain injuries:

- “More than 150,000 ser­vice mem­bers from the Marines, Air Force, Army and Navy have under­gone the test­ing that became manda­tory last year. Those who suf­fer a con­cus­sion or sim­i­lar head injury will get a follow-up test.”

Dia­betes ‘impact on brain power’:

- “Fail­ure to con­trol type 2 dia­betes may have a long-term impact on the brain, research has suggested.

- Lead researcher Dr Jackie Price said: “Either hypos lead to cog­ni­tive decline, or cog­ni­tive decline makes it more dif­fi­cult for peo­ple to man­age their dia­betes, which in turn causes more hypos.

- “A third expla­na­tion could be that a third uniden­ti­fied fac­tor is caus­ing both the hypos and the cog­ni­tive decline.”

Brain Health News: Top Articles and Resources in March

There’s such a flood of very sig­nif­i­cant research stud­ies, edu­ca­tional resources and arti­cles related to brain health, it’s hard to keep track — even for us!

Let me intro­duce and quote some of the top Brain Health Stud­ies, Arti­cles and Resources pub­lished in March:

1) Cog­ni­tive Decline Begins In Late 20s, Study Sug­gests (Sci­ence Daily)

- “These pat­terns sug­gest that some types of men­tal flex­i­bil­ity decrease rel­a­tively early in adult­hood, but that how much knowl­edge one has, and the effec­tive­ness of inte­grat­ing it with one’s abil­i­ties, may increase through­out all of adult­hood if there are no patho­log­i­cal dis­eases,” Salt­house said.

- How­ever, Salt­house points out that there is a great deal of vari­ance from per­son to person

2) Cere­brum 2009: Emerg­ing Ideas in Brain Sci­ence — new book by the Dana Foun­da­tion that “explores the cut­ting edge of brain research and its impli­ca­tions in our every­day lives, in lan­guage under­stand­able to the gen­eral reader.”

A cou­ple of excel­lent chap­ters of direct rel­e­vance to everyone’s brain health are:
– Chap­ter 4: A Road Paved by Rea­son, by Eliz­a­beth Nor­ton Lasley

- Chap­ter 10: Neural Health: Is It Facil­i­tated by Work Force Par­tic­i­pa­tion?, by Denise Park, Ph.D

3) Stay­ing Sharp DVD Pro­gram: “Dr. Jor­dan Graf­man, chief of the Cog­ni­tive Neu­ro­science Sec­tion at the National Insti­tute of Neu­ro­log­i­cal Dis­or­ders and Stroke out­side of Wash­ing­ton, DC, and a mem­ber of the Dana Alliance for Brain Ini­tia­tives, is your guide as we cover what to expect from the aging brain and what we can do to ‘stay sharp.’

For a free DVD of this pro­gram you can con­tact stayingsharp@dana.org. (they say free in their web­site, I don’t know if that includes ship­ping & handling)

4) Dri­vers to be tested on cog­ni­tive abil­ity start­ing at age 75 (Japan Times)

The out­line of a cog­ni­tive test that dri­vers aged 75 or over will be required to take from June when renew­ing their licenses was released Thursday…The test is intended to reduce the num­ber of traf­fic acci­dents involv­ing elderly dri­vers by mea­sur­ing their cog­ni­tive level.

5) Phys­i­cal Fit­ness Improves Spa­tial Mem­ory, Increases Size Of Brain Struc­ture (Sci­ence Daily)

- “Now researchers have found that elderly adults who are more phys­i­cally fit tend to have big­ger hip­pocampi and bet­ter spa­tial mem­ory than those who are less fit.”

6) Brain Train­ers: A Work­out for the Mind (Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can Mind)

I recently tried out eight of the lat­est brain fit­ness pro­grams, train­ing with each for a week. The pro­grams ranged widely in focus, qual­ity and how fun they were to use. “Like phys­i­cal exer­cise equip­ment, a brain exer­cise pro­gram doesn’t do you any good if you don’t use it, says Andrew J. Carle, direc­tor of the Pro­gram in Assisted Living/Senior Hous­ing Admin­is­tra­tion at George Mason Uni­ver­sity. And peo­ple tend not to use bor­ing equip­ment. “I remem­ber when Nor­dic­Track was the biggest thing out there. Every­one ran out and bought one, and 90 per­cent of them ended up as a clothes rack in the back of your bedroom.

The reporter used: Posit Science’s Brain Fit­ness Pro­gram Clas­sic, Hap­pyNeu­ron, Nin­tendo BrainAge, CogniFit’s MindFit/ Cog­niFit Per­sonal Coach, Lumos­ity, MyBrain­Trainer, Brain­Twister, Cogmed Work­ing Mem­ory Training.

7) The Lat­est in Men­tal Health: Work­ing Out at the ‘Brain Gym’ (Wall Street Journal)

- “Mar­shall Kahn, an 82-year-old fam­ily doc­tor in Fuller­ton, Calif., says he got such a boost from brain exer­cises he started doing at a “Nifty after Fifty” club that he decided to start see­ing patients again part-time. “Doing all the men­tal exer­cise,” he says, “I real­ized I’ve still got it.”

8) Debate Over Drugs For ADHD Reignites (Wash­ing­ton Post)

- “New data from a large fed­eral study have reignited a debate over the effec­tive­ness of long-term drug treat­ment of chil­dren with hyper­ac­tiv­ity or attention-deficit dis­or­der, and have drawn accu­sa­tions that some mem­bers of the research team have sought to play down evi­dence that med­ica­tions do lit­tle good beyond 24 months.”

- “The study also indi­cated that long-term use of the drugs can stunt children’s growth.”

8) Adap­tive train­ing leads to sus­tained enhance­ment of poor work­ing mem­ory in chil­dren (Devel­op­men­tal Science)

Abstract: Work­ing mem­ory plays a cru­cial role in sup­port­ing learn­ing, with poor progress in read­ing and math­e­mat­ics char­ac­ter­iz­ing chil­dren with low mem­ory skills. This study inves­ti­gated whether these prob­lems can be over­come by a train­ing pro­gram designed to boost work­ing mem­ory. Chil­dren with low work­ing mem­ory skills were assessed on mea­sures of work­ing mem­ory, IQ and aca­d­e­mic attain­ment before and after train­ing on either adap­tive or non-adaptive ver­sions of the pro­gram. Adap­tive train­ing that taxed work­ing mem­ory to its lim­its was asso­ci­ated with sub­stan­tial and sus­tained gains in work­ing mem­ory, with age-appropriate lev­els achieved by the major­ity of chil­dren. Math­e­mat­i­cal abil­ity also improved sig­nif­i­cantly 6 months fol­low­ing adap­tive train­ing. These find­ings indi­cate that com­mon impair­ments in work­ing mem­ory and asso­ci­ated learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties may be over­come with this behav­ioral treatment.

9) Brain cor­tex thin­ning linked to inher­ited depres­sion (Los Ange­les Times)

- “On aver­age, peo­ple with a fam­ily his­tory of depres­sion appear to have brains that are 28% thin­ner in the right cor­tex — the out­er­most layer of the brain — than those with no known fam­ily his­tory of the dis­ease. That cor­ti­cal thin­ning, said the researchers, is on a scale sim­i­lar to that seen in patients with Alzheimer’s dis­ease or schizophrenia.”

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 »

The Overflowing Brain: Most Important Book of 2008

We have tracked for sev­eral years the sci­en­tific stud­ies pub­lished by Torkel Kling­berg and col­leagues, often won­der­ing aloud, “when will edu­ca­tors, health pro­fes­sion­als, exec­u­tives and main­stream soci­ety come to appre­ci­ate the poten­tial we have in front of  us to enhance our brains and improve our cog­ni­tive functions?”

Dr. Kling­berg has just pub­lished a very stim­u­lat­ing the Overflowing Brain by Torkel Klingsbergpop­u­lar sci­ence book, The Over­flow­ing Brain, that should help in pre­cisely that direc­tion. Given the impor­tance of the topic, and the qual­ity of the book, we have named  The Over­flow­ing Brain: Infor­ma­tion Over­load and the Lim­its of Work­ing Mem­ory The Sharp­Brains Most Impor­tant Book of 2008, and asked Dr. Kling­berg to write a brief arti­cle to intro­duce his research and book to you. Below you have. Enjoy!

Research and Tools to Thrive in the Cog­ni­tive Age

By Dr. Torkel Klingberg

Do we all have atten­tion deficits?

The infor­ma­tion age has pro­vided us with high tech­nol­ogy which fills our days with an ever increas­ing amount of infor­ma­tion and dis­trac­tion. We are con­stantly flooded with on-the-go emails, phone calls, adver­tise­ments and text-messages and we try to cope with the increas­ing pace by multi task­ing. A sur­vey of work­places in the United States found that the per­son­nel were inter­rupted and dis­tracted roughly every three min­utes and that peo­ple work­ing on a com­puter had on aver­age eight win­dows open at the same time. There is no ten­dency for this to slow down; the amount and com­plex­ity of infor­ma­tion con­tin­u­ally increases

The most press­ing con­cerns with this envi­ron­ment are: how do we deal with the daily influx of infor­ma­tion that our inun­dated men­tal capac­i­ties are faced with? At what point does our stone-age brain become insuf­fi­cient? Will we be able to train our brains effec­tively to increase brain capac­ity in order to Read the rest of this entry »

Can you use mental self rotation to read a map?

What is men­tal self rota­tion? It is the abil­ity to imag­ine your­self in dif­fer­ent loca­tions in space and imag­ine your body mov­ing in space. This is an abil­ity that is used in dif­fer­ent every­day activ­i­ties such as nav­i­gat­ing in an envi­ron­ment or read­ing a map.

  • Abil­ity involved: ego­cen­tric spa­tial trans­for­ma­tions (yes, that is the sci­en­tific expres­sion) or men­tal self rotation.
  • Brain areas involved: mostly pari­etal lobes.

Let’s take an exam­ple. Imag­ine that you plan to go to a new Wal­greens loca­tion. You won­der whether going North on Big Bend Avenue you would have to make a right or a left turn onto Forsyth Blvd to get to Wal­greens. You then look at the map that your spouse has laid out on the table. It turns out that the map is upside down so your per­spec­tive is not aligned with the one shown on the map (see Fig­ure 1 just below, Box A). How do you get the answer to your ques­tion? Read the rest of this entry »

Cognitive Health News Roundup

July is shap­ing up to be a fas­ci­nat­ing month, full of cog­ni­tive health research reports and appli­ca­tions. Here you have a roundup, cov­er­ing food for the brain, cog­ni­tive assess­ments, men­tal train­ing and DNA, and more.

1) Brain foods: the effects of nutri­ents on brain func­tion (Nature Neuroscience)

“Brain foods: the effects of nutri­ents on brain func­tion”, by Fer­nando Gmez-Pinilla.

Abstract: Read the rest of this entry »

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