Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


Bi-Weekly Update: Preventing Memory Loss and Public Policy

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Brain Fitness News and Events

Upcoming Events: I will be speaking at five Health, Education and Gaming events over the next couple of months to introduce findings from our recent market report. Please introduce yourself if you attend any of these events.

Preventing Memory Loss-Special Issue: Congressional Quarterly Researcher, one of the main publications on Capitol Hill, published an impressive 24-page special issue titled Preventing Memory Loss. Highly recommended if you want to be on top of the latest research trends and their policy implications.

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 Zull“Learning 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 Goldberg“Exercising 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 Stern“Individuals 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 Hirano“It 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.jpg“We 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 Rabiner“Cognitive 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 »

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