Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


Maximize the Cognitive Value of Your Mental Workout

Phys­i­cal fit­ness. Cognitive/ brain fit­ness. Both require nov­elty, vari­ety and chal­lenge. Pro­fes­sor Schlomo Breznitz, a sci­en­tific and busi­ness leader in the cog­ni­tive fit­ness field, explains why, elo­quently, below. Per­haps “we want change” really means “we need change”. Enjoy!


Why are every­day life chal­lenges not suf­fi­cient to keep our brains fit?

– By Prof. Shlomo Breznitz

Often, when describ­ing the ben­e­fits of Mind­Fit to brain health, I am asked by peo­ple in the audi­ence whether this soft­ware is really needed. After all, so they argue, life pro­vides con­tin­ues cog­ni­tive chal­lenges, which should suf­fice for ensur­ing brain fit­ness. From the moment we wake up until we go to sleep our brains have to attend to com­plex stim­uli, plan many activ­i­ties, some of them quite com­plex, and carry us through what­ever the day offers. These tasks should pro­vide suf­fi­cient “brain exer­cise” with­out the need to engage in spe­cific men­tal workout.

This line of argu­ment sounds oddly famil­iar, since it is an exact dupli­ca­tion of claims made in the recent past against the need for phys­i­cal exer­cise. One jumps into the car and from the car and per­haps even climbs a few stairs before sit­ting in the chair, which should be enough to burn the calo­ries and keep fit.

Read the rest of this entry »

Neuroplasticity 101 and Brain Health Glossary

Given the grow­ing num­ber of arti­cles in the pop­u­lar press men­tion­ing words such as “neu­ro­plas­tic­ity”, “fMRI” and “cog­ni­tive reserve”, let’s review some key find­ings, con­cepts and terms.

First, a pre­scient quote by Span­ish neu­ro­sci­en­tist San­ti­ago Ramon y Cajal (1852–1934): “Every man can, if he so desires, become the sculp­tor his own brain”.

fmri.jpgThanks to new neu­roimag­ing tech­niques, regarded “as impor­tant for neu­ro­science as tele­scopes were for astron­omy, neu­ro­sci­en­tists and cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gists have been find­ing that the brain has a num­ber of “core capac­i­ties” and “men­tal mus­cles” that can be exer­cised through nov­elty, vari­ety and prac­tice, and that exer­cis­ing our brain can influ­ence the gen­er­a­tion of new neu­rons and their con­nec­tions. Brain exer­cise is being rec­og­nized, there­fore, as a crit­i­cal pil­lar of brain health, together with nutri­tion, phys­i­cal exer­cise and stress management.

Pre­vi­ous beliefs about our brain and how it works have been proven false. Some beliefs that have been debunked include claims that adult brains can not cre­ate new neu­rons (shown to be false by Berke­ley sci­en­tists Mar­ian Dia­mond and Mark Rosen­zweig, and Salk Institute’s Fred Gage), notions that work­ing mem­ory has a max­i­mum limit of 6 or 7 items (debunked by Karolin­ska Insti­tute Torkel Kling­berg), and assump­tions that the brain’s basic processes can not be reor­ga­nized by repeated prac­tice (UCSF’s Drs. Paula Tal­lal and Michael Merzenich). The “men­tal mus­cles” we can train include atten­tion, stress and emo­tional man­age­ment, mem­ory, visual/ spa­tial, audi­tory processes and lan­guage, motor coor­di­na­tion and exec­u­tive func­tions like plan­ning and problem-solving.

Men­tal stim­u­la­tion is impor­tant if done in the right sup­port­ive and engag­ing envi­ron­ment. Stanford’s Robert Sapol­sky has proven that chronic stress and cor­ti­cal inhi­bi­tion, which may be aggra­vated due to imposed men­tal stim­u­la­tion, may prove coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. Hav­ing the right moti­va­tion is essential.

A sur­pris­ing and promis­ing area of sci­en­tific inquiry is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduc­tion (MBSR). An increas­ing num­ber of neu­ro­sci­en­tists (such as Uni­ver­sity of Wisconsin-Madison’s Richard David­son) are inves­ti­gat­ing the abil­ity of trained med­i­ta­tors to develop and sus­tain atten­tion and visu­al­iza­tions and to work pos­i­tively with pow­er­ful emo­tional states and stress through the directed men­tal processes of med­i­ta­tion practices.

And now, some keywords:

Brain Fit­ness Pro­gram: struc­tured set of brain exer­cises, usu­ally computer-based, designed to train spe­cific brain areas and processes in tar­geted ways.

Chronic Stress: ongo­ing, long-term stress, which blocks the for­ma­tion of new neu­rons and Read the rest of this entry »

MindFit by CogniFit, and Baroness Susan Greenfield

We are glad to see that Mind­Fit is finally mak­ing it into the pop­u­lar press, at least in the UK. The pro­gram is mak­ing big news in the UK (BBC, Times, Daily Telegragh, Guardian…) because Baroness Susan Green­field, direc­tor of the Royal Insti­tu­tion and a well-respected neu­ro­sci­en­tist, is endors­ing it. We eval­u­ated it last year andTwo In One Task liked what we saw, based on our 10-Question Check­list. Now, remem­ber that no pro­gram is “best”, but that dif­fer­ent pro­grams can be more appro­pri­ate for spe­cific peo­ple and spe­cific goals, so read the check­list first and take a lot at other pro­grams too if you are in the mar­ket for “brain training”.

Mind­Fit is a software-based assess­ment and train­ing pro­gram for 14 cog­ni­tive skills impor­tant for healthy aging. We typ­i­cally rec­om­mend it for peo­ple over 50 (up to any age, you sim­ply need to know how to use a com­puter and a mouse) who want a novel and var­ied men­tal workout.

The pro­gram has Read the rest of this entry »

11 Neuroscientists Debunk a Common Myth about Brain Training

Last Mon­day, NPR (very good US-based radio sta­tion) had a pro­gram on “do brain train­ing pro­grams work?” that reflected very old-fashioned think­ing. In short, the guest speak­ers talked and talked about the impor­tance of nutri­tion and phys­i­cal exer­cise (both very impor­tant, as we have cov­ered in this blog mul­ti­ple times), and expressed skep­ti­cism about the con­cept of exer­cis­ing our brains to improve atten­tion, mem­ory and other skills…I guess it takes a while to change old men­tal par­a­digms (And yes, some pro­grams work bet­ter than others).

Neu­ro­sci­en­tists have finally debunked that old think­ing that our brains decline inex­orably after a cer­tain age with lit­tle each of us can do to “exer­cise” or “train our brains”. But don’t trust me. Dur­ing the last year I have had the for­tune to inter­view 11 cutting-edge neu­ro­sci­en­tists and cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gists on their research and thoughts. Here are some of my favorite quotes (you can read the full inter­view notes by click­ing the links):

Judith Beck “Today, thanks to fMRI and other neu­roimag­ing tech­niques, we are start­ing to under­stand the impact our actions can have on spe­cific parts of the brain.”- Dr. Judith S. Beck, Direc­tor of the Beck Insti­tute for Cog­ni­tive Ther­apy and Research, and author of The Beck Diet Solu­tion: Train Your Brain to Think Like a Thin Per­son. Full Inter­view Notes.

James ZullLearn­ing is phys­i­cal. Learn­ing means the mod­i­fi­ca­tion, growth, and prun­ing of our neu­rons, con­nec­tions called synapses and neu­ronal net­works, through experience…When we do so, we are cul­ti­vat­ing our own neu­ronal net­works. We become our own gar­den­ers — Dr. James Zull, Pro­fes­sor of Biol­ogy and Bio­chem­istry at Case West­ern Uni­ver­sity. Full Inter­view Notes.

Dr. Elkhonon GoldbergExer­cis­ing our brains sys­tem­at­i­cally is as impor­tant as exer­cis­ing our bod­ies. In my expe­ri­ence, “Use it or lose it” should really be “Use it and get more of it”.- Dr. Elkhonon Gold­berg, neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist, clin­i­cal pro­fes­sor of neu­rol­ogy at New York Uni­ver­sity School of Med­i­cine, and dis­ci­ple of the great neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist Alexan­der Luria. Full Inter­view Notes.

Picture of Daniel Gopher What research has shown is that cog­ni­tion, or what we call think­ing and per­for­mance, is really a set of skills that we can train sys­tem­at­i­cally. And that computer-based cog­ni­tive train­ers or“cognitive sim­u­la­tions are the most effec­tive and effi­cient way to do so. — Dr. Daniel Gopher, Direc­tor of the Research Cen­ter for Work Safety and Human Engi­neer­ing at Tech­nion Insti­tute of Sci­ence. Full Inter­view Notes.

Yaakov SternIndi­vid­u­als who lead men­tally stim­u­lat­ing lives, through edu­ca­tion, occu­pa­tion and leisure activ­i­ties, have reduced risk of devel­op­ing Alzheimer’s symp­toms. Stud­ies sug­gest that they have 35–40% less risk of man­i­fest­ing the dis­ease– Dr. Yaakov Stern, Divi­sion Leader of the Cog­ni­tive Neu­ro­science Divi­sion of the Sergievsky Cen­ter at the Col­lege of Physi­cians and Sur­geons of Colum­bia Uni­ver­sity, New York. Full Inter­view Notes.

Go HiranoIt is hardly deni­able that brains enchant Japan­ese peo­ple. We love brain train­ing. Dentsu, the biggest adver­tis­ing agency, announced the No.1 Consumer-chosen 2006 Prod­uct was game soft­ware and books for brain train­ing.”- Go Hirano, Japan­ese exec­u­tive, founder of NeuWell. Full Inter­view Notes.

Picture of Brett Steenbarger Elite per­form­ers are dis­tin­guished by the struc­tur­ing of their learn­ing process. It is impor­tant to under­stand the role of emo­tions: they are not “bad”. They are very use­ful sig­nals. It is impor­tant to become aware of them to avoid being engulfed by them, and learn how to man­age them. — Dr. Brett Steen­barger, Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of Psy­chi­a­try and Behav­ioral Sci­ences, SUNY Med­ical Uni­ver­sity, and author of Enhanc­ing Trader Per­for­mance. Full Inter­view Notes.

torkel_s.jpgWe have shown that work­ing mem­ory can be improved by train­ing…I think that we are see­ing the begin­ning of a new era of com­put­er­ized train­ing for a wide range of appli­ca­tions.  Dr. Torkel Kling­berg, Direc­tor of the Devel­op­men­tal Cog­ni­tive Neu­ro­science Lab at Karolin­ska Insti­tute. Full Inter­view Notes.

Bradley S. Gibson, Ph.D.Train­ing is very impor­tant: atten­tional con­trol is one of the last cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties to develop in nor­mal brain development…I can eas­ily see the rel­e­vance in 2 fields. One, pro­fes­sional sports. Two, mil­i­tary train­ing.  Pro­fes­sor Bradley Gib­son is the Direc­tor of the Per­cep­tion and Atten­tion Lab at Uni­ver­sity of Notre Dame. Full Inter­view Notes.

Arthur LavinI don’t see that schools are apply­ing the best knowl­edge of how minds work. Schools should be the best place for applied neu­ro­science, tak­ing the lat­est advances in cog­ni­tive research and apply­ing it to the job of edu­cat­ing minds. — Dr. Arthur Lavin, Asso­ciate Clin­i­cal Pro­fes­sor of Pedi­atrics at Case West­ern School of Med­i­cine, pedi­a­tri­cian in pri­vate prac­tice. Full Inter­view Notes.

David RabinerCog­ni­tive train­ing rests on solid premises, and some pro­grams already have very promis­ing research results. Some of the most are promis­ing areas are: neu­ro­feed­back, which as a whole is start­ing to present good research results, and work­ing mem­ory train­ing. — Pro­fes­sor David Rabiner, Senior Research Sci­en­tist and the Direc­tor of Psy­chol­ogy and Neu­ro­science Under­grad­u­ate Stud­ies at Duke Uni­ver­sity: Full Inter­view Notes.

There is much we can do every­day to lit­er­ally exer­cise our brains. No mat­ter our age. So much to Learn…so Good to Learn! Let’s see when this story makes it into NPR.

Build Your Cognitive Reserve: An Interview with Dr. Yaakov Stern

Yaakov SternDr. Yaakov Stern is the Divi­sion Leader of the Cog­ni­tive Neu­ro­science Divi­sion of the Sergievsky Cen­ter, and Pro­fes­sor of Clin­i­cal Neu­ropsy­chol­ogy, at the Col­lege of Physi­cians and Sur­geons of Colum­bia Uni­ver­sity, New York. Alvaro Fer­nan­dez inter­views him here as part of our research for The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness book.

Dr. Stern is one of the lead­ing pro­po­nents of the Cog­ni­tive reserve the­ory, which aims to explain why some indi­vid­u­als with full Alzheimer’s pathol­ogy (accu­mu­la­tion of plaques and tan­gles in their brains) can keep nor­mal lives until they die, while oth­ers –with the same amount of plaques and tan­gles– dis­play the severe symp­toms we asso­ciate with Alzheimer’s Dis­ease. He has pub­lished dozens of peer-reviewed sci­en­tific papers on the subject.

The con­cept of a Cog­ni­tive Reserve has been around since 1989, when a post mortem analy­sis of 137 peo­ple with Alzheimer’s Dis­ease showed that some patients exhib­ited fewer clin­i­cal symp­toms than their actual pathol­ogy sug­gested. These patients also showed higher brain weights and greater num­ber of neu­rons when com­pared to age-matched con­trols. The inves­ti­ga­tors hypoth­e­sized that the patients had a larger “reserve” of neu­rons and abil­i­ties that enable them to off­set the losses caused by Alzheimer’s. Since then, the con­cept of Cog­ni­tive Reserve has been defined as the abil­ity of an indi­vid­ual to tol­er­ate pro­gres­sive brain pathol­ogy with­out demon­strat­ing clin­i­cal cog­ni­tive symp­toms. (You can check at the end of this inter­view a great clip on this).


Key take-aways

- Life­time expe­ri­ences, like edu­ca­tion, engag­ing occu­pa­tion, and leisure activ­i­ties, have been shown to have a major influ­ence on how we age, specif­i­cally on whether we will develop Alzheimer’s symp­toms or not.

- This is so because stim­u­lat­ing activ­i­ties, ide­ally com­bin­ing phys­i­cal exer­cise, learn­ing and social inter­ac­tion, help us build a Cog­ni­tive Reserve to pro­tect us.

- The ear­lier we start build­ing our Reserve, the bet­ter; but it is never too late to start. And, the more activ­i­ties, the bet­ter: the effect is cumulative.


The Cog­ni­tive Reserve

Alvaro Fer­nan­dez (AF): Dear Dr. Stern, it is a plea­sure to have you here. Let me first ask you this: the impli­ca­tions of your research are pretty broad, pre­sent­ing major impli­ca­tions across sec­tors and age groups. What has been the most unex­pected reac­tion so far?

YS: well…I was pretty sur­prised when Read the rest of this entry »

Brain Exercise for the Frontal lobes: the McKinsey Mind

My first full-time job was as a strate­gic con­sul­tant at McK­in­sey & Com­pany. A very intense 2-year learn­ing experience.

Their Alumni News Ser­vice recently inter­viewed me and pub­lished this great arti­cle on Sharp­Brains. The writer does a superb job of pro­vid­ing an overview of what we do, so I rec­om­mend you read it. I’d like to empha­size the fol­low­ing quotes for any­one look­ing for jobs these days, so that “brain exer­cise” is part of the equation:

  • Alvaro has some very high praise for the men­tal gym­nas­tics that the McK­in­sey expe­ri­ence pro­vides.  Given that the frontal lobes in our brain (behind the fore­head) only mature in our late 20s, he says, the jobs we take in our early and mid-20s are very impor­tant not only for our career prospects, but also for our brain devel­op­ment fit­ness. This is the stage in our life where, con­sciously or not, we can improve our decision-making, ini­tia­tive and self-regulation abil­i­ties, all of which lit­er­ally affect the phys­i­cal growth of our frontal lobes in a sig­nif­i­cant way.”
  • Join­ing McK­in­sey as a BA is lit­er­ally like join­ing a brain gym, Alvaro says. “The demands of the McK­in­sey model. Read the rest of this entry »

Cognitive Training for Basketball Game-Intelligence: Interview with Prof. Daniel Gopher

Professor Daniel Gopher
Pro­fes­sor Daniel Gopher is a fel­low of the U.S. Human Fac­tors and Ergonom­ics Soci­ety and the Inter­na­tional Ergonom­ics Asso­ci­a­tion, Pro­fes­sor of Cog­ni­tive Psy­chol­ogy and Human Fac­tors Engi­neer­ing at Tech­nion, Israel’s Insti­tute of Sci­ence, and one of world’s lead­ing fig­ures in the field of Cog­ni­tive Train­ing.

Dur­ing his 40 year career, he has held a vari­ety of sci­en­tific and aca­d­e­mic posi­tions, such as act­ing Head of the Research Unit of the Mil­i­tary Per­son­nel Divi­sion, Asso­ciate Edi­tor of the Euro­pean Jour­nal of Cog­ni­tive Psy­chol­ogy, mem­ber of the Edi­to­r­ial Boards of Acta Psy­cho­log­ica, the Inter­na­tional Jour­nal of Human-Computer Inter­ac­tion, and the jour­nal Psychology.

He pub­lished an award-winning arti­cle in 1994, Gopher, D., Weil, M. and Baraket, T. (1994), Trans­fer of skill from a com­puter game trainer to flight, Human Fac­tors 36, 1–19., that con­sti­tutes a key mile­stone in the cog­ni­tive engi­neer­ing field.

Prof. Gopher has also devel­oped inno­v­a­tive a) med­ical sys­tems, assess­ing the nature and causes of human error in med­ical work, and redesign­ing med­ical work envi­ron­ments to improve safety and effi­ciency, and b) work safety sys­tems, devel­op­ing meth­ods and mod­els for the analy­sis of human fac­tors, ergonomic, safety and health prob­lems at the indi­vid­ual, team and plant level.

Alvaro Fer­nan­dez (AF): Pro­fes­sor Gopher, it is an honor that you speak to us. Could you pro­vide an overview of the projects are you work­ing on now? Read the rest of this entry »

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