Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


Brain Scientists Identify Links between Arts, Learning

Arts edu­ca­tion influ­ences learn­ing and other areas of cog­ni­tion and may deserve a more promi­nent place in schools, accord­ing to a wave of recent neu­ro­science research.One recent study found that chil­dren who receive music instruc­tion for just 15 months show strength­ened con­nec­tions in musi­cally rel­e­vant brain areas and per­form bet­ter on asso­ci­ated tasks, com­pared with stu­dents who do not learn an instrument.

A sep­a­rate study found that chil­dren who receive train­ing to improve their focus and atten­tion per­form bet­ter not only on atten­tion tasks but also on intel­li­gence tests. Some researchers sug­gest that arts train­ing might sim­i­larly affect a wide range of cog­ni­tive domains. Edu­ca­tors and neu­ro­sci­en­tists gath­ered recently in Bal­ti­more and Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to dis­cuss the increas­ingly detailed pic­ture of how arts edu­ca­tion changes the brain, and how to trans­late that research to edu­ca­tion pol­icy and the class­room. Many par­tic­i­pants referred to the results of Dana Foundation-funded research by cog­ni­tive neu­ro­sci­en­tists from seven lead­ing uni­ver­si­ties over three years, released in 2008.

Art must do some­thing to the mind and brain. What is that? How would we be able to detect that? asked Barry Gor­don, a behav­ioral neu­rol­o­gist and cog­ni­tive neu­ro­sci­en­tist at Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­sity, who spoke May 8 dur­ing the “Learn­ing and the Brain” con­fer­ence in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. “Art, I sub­mit to you with­out absolute proof, can improve the power of our minds. How­ever, this improve­ment is hard to detect.”

Study links music, brain changes

Among the sci­en­tists try­ing to detect such improve­ment, Ellen Win­ner, a pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy at Boston Col­lege, and Got­tfried Schlaug, a pro­fes­sor of neu­rol­ogy at Beth Israel Dea­coness Med­ical Cen­ter and Har­vard Med­ical School, pre­sented research at the “Learn­ing, Arts, and the Brain sum­mit May 6 in Bal­ti­more. Their work mea­sured, for the first time, changes to the brain as a result of music training.

For four years, Win­ner and Schlaug fol­lowed chil­dren ages 9 to 11, some of whom Read the rest of this entry »

Arts and Smarts: Test Scores and Cognitive Development

(Editor’s Note: we are pleased to bring you this arti­cle thanks to our col­lab­o­ra­tion with Greater Good Mag­a­zine.)

At a time when edu­ca­tors are pre­oc­cu­pied with stan­dards, test­ing, and the bot­tom line, some researchers sug­gest the arts can boost stu­dents’ test scores; oth­ers aren’t con­vinced. Karin Evans asks, What are the arts good for?

When poet and national endow­ment for the Arts Chair­man Dana Gioia gave the 2007 Com­mence­ment Address at Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity, he used the occa­sion to deliver an impas­sioned argu­ment for the value of the arts and arts education.

Art is an irre­place­able way of under­stand­ing and express­ing the world,” said Gioia. “There are some truths about life that can be expressed only as sto­ries, or songs, or images. Art delights, instructs, con­soles. It edu­cates our emotions.”

For years, arts advo­cates like Gioia have been mak­ing sim­i­lar pleas, stress­ing the intan­gi­ble ben­e­fits of the arts at a time when many Amer­i­cans are pre­oc­cu­pied with a market–driven cul­ture of enter­tain­ment, and schools are con­sumed with meet­ing fed­eral stan­dards. Art brings joy, these advo­cates say, or it evokes our human­ity, or, in the words of my 10–year–old daugh­ter, “It cools kids down after all the other hard stuff they have to think about.”

Bol­ster­ing the case for the arts has become increas­ingly nec­es­sary in recent years, as school bud­get cuts and the move toward stan­dard­ized test­ing have pro­foundly threat­ened the role of the arts in schools. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, passed in 2002, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment started assess­ing school dis­tricts by their stu­dents’ scores on read­ing and math­e­mat­ics tests.

As a result, accord­ing to a study by the Cen­ter on Edu­ca­tion Pol­icy, school dis­tricts across the United States increased the time they devoted to tested subjects—reading/language arts and math—while cut­ting spend­ing on non–tested sub­jects such as the visual arts and music. The more a school fell behind, by NCLB stan­dards, the more time and money was devoted to those tested sub­jects, with less going to the arts. The National Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion has reported that the cuts fall hard­est on schools with high num­bers of minor­ity children.

And the sit­u­a­tion is likely to worsen as state bud­gets get even tighter. Already, in a round of fed­eral edu­ca­tion cuts for 2006 and 2007, arts edu­ca­tion nation­ally was slashed by $35 mil­lion. In 2008, the New York City Depart­ment of Education’s annual study of Read the rest of this entry »

Brain News: Lifelong Learning for Cognitive Health

Here you have the March edi­tion of our monthly newslet­ter cov­er­ing cog­ni­tive health Brain Fitnessand brain fit­ness top­ics. Please remem­ber that you can sub­scribe to receive this Newslet­ter by email, using the box at the top of this page. I know I am biased — but do believe this Newslet­ter issue might well be our best so far. I hope you find the time to enjoy it!

Bird’s Eye View

Top Arti­cles and Resources in March: High­lights — a) great arti­cles in SciAm Mind and the Wall Street Jour­nal, b) new resources (book and free DVD) by the Dana Foun­da­tion, c) research stud­ies on how our cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties tend to evolve as we age, the impact of phys­i­cal exer­cise on the brain, the lack of long-term effec­tive­ness of ADHD drugs, and how work­ing mem­ory train­ing may ben­e­fit math performance.

Brain Fit­ness Sur­vey: Over 2,000 thought­ful responses to our Jan­u­ary sur­vey (Thank You!) rein­force the need for pub­lic aware­ness ini­tia­tives and qual­ity infor­ma­tion to help eval­u­ate and nav­i­gate lifestyle and prod­uct claims, as well as the need for more research, an expanded health­care cul­ture, as more. Given this con­text, we are pub­lish­ing The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness in May 2009, a book with 18 Inter­views with Sci­en­tists, Prac­ti­cal Advice, and Prod­uct Reviews, in addi­tion to our annual mar­ket report for pro­fes­sion­als and exec­u­tives (to be pub­lished in April). If you have ideas to help us pro­mote the book, please reply to this email and let us know!

Life­long Learning

Elderhostel’s Marty Knowl­ton dies at 88: He helped launch Elder­hos­tel, rein­vented “aging”, “retire­ment” and “learn­ing”, and con­tributed to the brain fit­ness of mil­lions of indi­vid­u­als as a result.

MetLife Mature Mar­ket Insti­tute Report: Geron­tol­o­gist Fay Radding presents the find­ings of a recent MetLife report, con­clud­ing that “As indi­vid­u­als age, mean­ing­ful inter­ac­tions and pur­pose­ful activ­ity become even more val­ued and cru­cial to cog­ni­tive health– and cog­ni­tive health itself becomes more of a priority.”

Change Your Envi­ron­ment, Change Your­self: Dr. Brett Steen­barger explains in his recent book that, “The great­est enemy of change is rou­tine. When we lapse into rou­tine and oper­ate on autopi­lot, we are no longer fully and actively con­scious of what we’re doing and why. That is why some of the most fer­tile sit­u­a­tions for per­sonal growth those that occur within new envi­ron­ments are those that force us to exit our rou­tines and actively mas­ter unfa­mil­iar challenges.”

Food for Thought

Michael Merzenich: Brain Plas­tic­ity offers Hope for Every­one: Dr. Gin­ger Camp­bell recently inter­viewed Dr. Michael Merzenich. Pod­cast Quote: “What­ever you strug­gle with in a sense as it stems from your neu­rol­ogy, the inher­ent plas­tic­ity of the brain gives you a basis for improve­ment. This is a way under­uti­lized and under-appreciated resource that well all have.”

Ther­apy vs. Med­ica­tion, Con­flicts of Inter­est, and Intim­i­da­tion: What started as an aca­d­e­mic dis­pute regard­ing dis­clo­sure of con­flict of inter­est is now snow­balling. Dr. Jonathan Leo crit­i­cized two impor­tant aspects of a recent a study pub­lished in JAMA that com­pared the effi­cacy of ther­apy vs. med­ica­tion. JAMA edi­tors then tried to intim­i­date Dr. Leo and his uni­ver­sity. An inves­ti­ga­tion by the Amer­i­can Med­ical Asso­ci­a­tion is under way.

ETech09 on Life Hack­ing and Brain Train­ing: Here you have the pre­sen­ta­tion Alvaro Fer­nan­dez deliv­ered at O’Reilly Emerg­ing Tech­nol­ogy Con­fer­ence 2009, a gath­er­ing of tech­nol­ogy pio­neers with a grow­ing inter­est in sci­ence and biol­ogy topics.


Dis­tracted in the Work­place?: In a very-thoughtful 2-part inter­view (part 1 here, part 2 here), author Mag­gie Jack­son chal­lenges us to “First, ques­tion the val­ues that ven­er­ate McThink­ing and under­mine attention.”

New Study Sup­ports Neu­ro­feed­back Treat­ment for ADHD: Dr. David Rabiner reports the promis­ing find­ings from the first well-designed con­trolled trial on the effect of neu­ro­feed­back treat­ment for ADHD.


Finally, I wanted to let you know that you can fol­low quick Sharp­Brains updates and some of my thoughts via Twit­ter:

Have a great National Car Care Month in April! (now, wouldn’t you please pay at least equal atten­tion to Brain Care than to Car Care?)

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 (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.”

Update: Does Cognitive Training Work?

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

Cog­ni­tive train­ing (or struc­tured men­tal exer­cise) def­i­nitely seems to work — as long as we define prop­erly what “work” means, don’t expect magic cures, and help nav­i­gate options. Please keep reading…

Inter­view: Bay­crest

Inter­view with Baycrest’s CEO Dr. William Reich­man: Dis­cussing the recent Cen­tre for Brain Fit­ness at Bay­crest, Dr. Reich­man sug­gests that “we have an oppor­tu­nity to make major progress in Brain Health in the XXI cen­tury, sim­i­lar to what hap­pened with Car­dio­vas­cu­lar Health in the XXth, and tech­nol­ogy will play a cru­cial role.” A major obsta­cle? We need a con­sen­sus on “widely accepted stan­dards for out­come measures”.

Does It Work?

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 under­stand­ing of the sci­en­tific evi­dence. Dr. Pas­cale Mich­e­lon, Sharp­Brains’ Research Man­ager for Edu­ca­tional Ini­tia­tives, ana­lyzes a cou­ple of recent stud­ies, clar­i­fy­ing what they mean — and what they don’t mean.

It Works, and It Doesn’t Work: the IMPACT study (a major, multi-site study on the Posit Sci­ence audi­tory pro­gram) will be pub­lished at the Jour­nal of the Amer­i­can Geri­atrics Soci­ety in April. Results sup­port that cog­ni­tive train­ing works — but doesn’t sup­port the grandiose “brain age” claims we see too often.

Cog­ni­tive Train­ing can Influ­ence Brain Bio­chem­istry: Dr. David Rabiner dis­cusses a recent sci­en­tific study that “shows that brain bio­chem­istry can be mod­i­fied by expe­ri­ence”, and that com­put­er­ized cog­ni­tive train­ing (Cogmed work­ing mem­ory train­ing) can pro­vide that experience.

The Big Picture

Mak­ing Healthy Choices — Pri­mare Care and Pre­ven­tion: a panel at the recent World Eco­nomic Forum explored why “New mar­kets and indus­tries are aris­ing sil­ver indus­tries such as finan­cial ser­vices, health, hous­ing and hos­pi­tal­ity geared to senior cit­i­zens. Longevity needs to be linked to health includ­ing cog­ni­tive health and lifestyle choices play a major role in health.”

Enrich your envi­ron­ment now and ben­e­fit your future off­spring: Dr. Robert Syl­wester reports that “all sorts of long held-beliefs about our brain and cog­ni­tion are being re– exam­ined by cog­ni­tive neu­ro­sci­en­tists” because of fas­ci­nat­ing stud­ies such as the one he reviews (with mice): “The study’s find­ings seemed to sug­gest that acquired char­ac­ter­is­tics can be genet­i­cally transmitted…long-term ben­e­fits accrue from a stim­u­lat­ing early envi­ron­ment that encour­ages curios­ity and exploration.”

Man­ag­ing Emotions

From Dis­tress to De-Stress: help­ing anx­ious, wor­ried kids: In a detailed 2-part arti­cle, (Part 1, Part 2), Dr. Jerome Schultz pro­vides great tips on how to help chil­dren learn to self-regulate emo­tions, adding that “Teach­ers, occu­pa­tional ther­a­pists, phys­i­cal edu­ca­tion teach­ers and par­ents need to actu­ally teach chil­dren (of all ages) how to get them­selves into a phys­i­cal state of being relaxed. This doesn’t hap­pen auto­mat­i­cally. If it did, there wouldn’t be so many adult yoga classes!”

Lie to Me, Paul Ekman and Biofeed­back: You may have watched the new series Lie To Me, with Tim Roth, based on the work of Paul Ekman. The intro­duc­tion to the sec­ond episode shows why what are called “lie detec­tors” are noth­ing but biofeed­back sys­tems that mea­sure phys­i­o­log­i­cal anxiety.


Brain Games for Baby Boomers: round-up of other recent news, cov­er­ing the effects of gam­ing, cog­ni­tive train­ing for dri­ving skills, and brain fit­ness classes.

Neu­rocog­ni­tive assess­ments and sports con­cus­sions: a new study and a new resource to under­stand and address the 1.6 to 3.8 mil­lion cases of sports-related con­cus­sions that occur annu­ally in the United States.

Brain Teaser

How will you, your orga­ni­za­tion, your neigh­bors, par­tic­i­pate in Brain Aware­ness Week, March 16th-22nd, orga­nized by the Dana Foun­da­tion with the par­tic­i­pa­tion of thou­sands of out­reach part­ners, includ­ing Sharp­Brains? You can find event ideas, excel­lent resources (yes, includ­ing puz­zles), and a cal­en­dar of events, Here.

Have a great month of March!

Your Brain At Work, by the Dana Alliance and The Conference Board

Sev­eral months ago we came across an excel­lent resource for cognitive/ brain fit­ness aimed at help­ing com­pa­nies offer qual­ity brain health infor­ma­tion to their employees.

While it is true that we often tend to believe all this “brain fit­ness” stuff is most rel­e­vant to our par­ents and/ or grand­par­ents, trust me, if you are read­ing this, you need it. Every­one with a brain can ben­e­fit from learn­ing about how his or her brain works and how to main­tain it with proper care.

And, from a company’s point of view, aren’t “tal­ent” and “human cap­i­tal” really all about brain fit­ness and cog­ni­tive performance?

Your Brain At Work - Dana Foundation and the Conference BoardThe Con­fer­ence Board and the Dana Alliance for Brain Ini­tia­tives (descrip­tions below) pub­lished in 2008 a 44-page book­let to “teach sim­ple, prac­ti­cal strate­gies for incor­po­rat­ing brain-friendly prac­tices into day-to-day life”.  Your Brain at work: Mak­ing the sci­ence of cog­ni­tive fit­ness to work for you is the first of three planned book­lets on cog­ni­tive fitness.

The Con­fer­ence Board and the Dana Alliance have allowed Sharp­Brains to share the fol­low­ing Action Plan with our read­ers, straight from Your Brain at work brochure. At the bot­tom of this post we also share instruc­tions on how indi­vid­u­als and com­pa­nies can get their own copies of this excel­lent brochure. Read the rest of this entry »

The Future of Computer-assisted Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

The Wall Street Jour­nal had a very inter­est­ing arti­cle yes­ter­day, titled To Be Young and Anxiety-Free, focused on the value of cog­ni­tive behav­ioral ther­apy to help chil­dren with high lev­els of anx­i­ety learn how too cope bet­ter and pre­vent the snow­ball sce­nario, when that anx­i­ety grows and spi­rals out of con­trol result­ing in depres­sion and similar

- “…new research show­ing that treat­ing kids for anx­i­ety when they are young may help pre­vent the devel­op­ment of more seri­ous men­tal ill­nesses, includ­ing depres­sion and more debil­i­tat­ing anx­i­ety disorders.”

- “Of course, most kids have fears with­out hav­ing a full-blown anx­i­ety dis­or­der. And some anx­i­ety is healthy: It makes sense, for exam­ple, to be a lit­tle ner­vous before a big test. Doc­tors and psy­chol­o­gists do cau­tion that the increased focus on child­hood anx­i­ety could lead to an over­diag­no­sis of the prob­lem. What makes anx­i­ety a true ill­ness is when it inter­feres with nor­mal func­tion­ing or causes seri­ous emo­tional and phys­i­cal distress.”

- “But the use of anti­de­pres­sants in chil­dren has come under fire because Read the rest of this entry »

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