Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


How does mindfulness improve self-control and executive functioning?

MeditationWe have emo­tions for a rea­son. Anger in response to injus­tice can sig­nal that the sit­u­a­tion needs to change; sad­ness in response to loss can sig­nal that we’d like to keep the peo­ple we love in our lives.

It’s when we rumi­nate, or get caught up in our emo­tions, that they might become mal­adap­tive. That’s when Read the rest of this entry »

Transcendental Meditation and Working Memory Training To Enhance Executive Functions

New study shows Tran­scen­den­tal Med­i­ta­tion improves brain func­tion­ing in ADHD stu­dents (press release):

- “Prior research shows ADHD chil­dren have slower brain devel­op­ment and a reduced abil­ity to cope with stress,” said Dr. Stixrud. “Vir­tu­ally every­one finds it dif­fi­cult to pay atten­tion, orga­nize them­selves and get things done when they’re under stress,” he explained. “Stress inter­feres with Read the rest of this entry »

Are videogames good for YOU? Depends on who YOU are

Two recent sci­en­tific stud­ies pub­lished by Dr. Arthur Kramer and col­leagues present Rise of Nations Arthur Kramerfas­ci­nat­ing results. The two stud­ies are:

1) Basak C, et al “Can train­ing in a real-time strat­egy video game atten­u­ate cog­ni­tive decline in older adults?” Psy­chol Aging 2008; DOI: 10.1037/a0013494.

2) Boot, W. R., Kramer, A. F., Simons, D. J., Fabi­ani, M. & Grat­ton, G. (2008) The effects of video game play­ing on atten­tion, mem­ory, and exec­u­tive con­trol. Acta Psy­cho­log­ica, 129, 387–398.

Let’s first review the first study, a sig­nif­i­cant exper­i­ment in that it showed wide cog­ni­tive ben­e­fits in adults over 60 years old who played a strat­egy videogame (Rise of Nations) for 23 hours.

Play­ing com­puter games improves brain power of older adults, claim sci­en­tists (Telegraph)

- The team at the Uni­ver­sity of Illi­nois recruited 40 adults over 60 years old, half of whom were asked to play a com­puter game called Rise of Nations, a role-playing game in which you have to build your own empire.

- Game play­ers have to build cities, feed and employ their peo­ple, main­tain an ade­quate mil­i­tary and expand their territory.

- Both groups were assessed before, dur­ing and after the video game train­ing on a vari­ety of tests.

- As a group, the “gamers” became sig­nif­i­cantly bet­ter and faster at Read the rest of this entry »

Physical Exercise and Brain Health

Healthy Seniors

What is the con­nec­tion between phys­i­cal and men­tal exer­cises? Do they have addi­tive effects on brain health? Are they redundant?

Let’s start by review­ing what we know about the effects of phys­i­cal exer­cise on the brain.

The effect of phys­i­cal exer­cise on cog­ni­tive performance

Early stud­ies com­pared groups of peo­ple who exer­cised to groups of peo­ple who did not exer­cise much. Results showed that peo­ple who exer­cised usu­ally had bet­ter per­for­mance in a range of cog­ni­tive tasks com­pared to non-exercisers.

Lau­rin and col­leagues (2001) even sug­gested that mod­er­ate and high lev­els of phys­i­cal activ­ity were asso­ci­ated with lower risk for Alzheimer’s dis­ease and other dementias.

The prob­lem with these stud­ies is that the exer­cis­ers and the non-exercisers may dif­fer on other fac­tors than just exer­cise. The advan­tage that exer­ciser show may not come from exer­cis­ing but from other fac­tors such as more resources, bet­ter brain health to start with, bet­ter diet, etc.

The solu­tion to this prob­lem is to ran­domly assigned peo­ple to either an aer­o­bic train­ing group or a con­trol group. If the exer­ciser group and the non-exerciser group are very sim­i­lar to start with and if the exer­ciser group shows less decline or bet­ter per­for­mance over time than the non-exerciser group, then one can con­clude that phys­i­cal exer­cise is ben­e­fi­cial for brain health.

In 2003, Col­combe and Kramer, ana­lyzed the results of 18 sci­en­tific stud­ies pub­lished between 2000 and 2001 that were con­ducted in the way described above.

The results of this meta-analysis clearly showed that fit­ness train­ing increases cog­ni­tive per­for­mance in healthy adults between the ages of 55 and 80.

Another meta-analysis pub­lished in 2004 by Heyn and col­leagues shows sim­i­lar ben­e­fi­cial effects of fit­ness train­ing on peo­ple over 65 years old who had cog­ni­tive impair­ment or dementia.

What is the effect of fit­ness train­ing on the brain itself?

Research with ani­mals has shown that in mice, increased aer­o­bic fit­ness (run­ning) can increase the num­ber of new cells formed in the hip­pocam­pus (the hip­pocam­pus is cru­cial for learn­ing and mem­ory). Increased exer­cise also has a ben­e­fi­cial effect on mice’s vas­cu­lar system.

Only one study has used brain imag­ing to look at the effect of fit­ness on the human brain. In 2006, Col­combe and col­leagues ran­domly assigned 59 older adults to either a car­dio­vas­cu­lar exer­cise group, or a non­aer­o­bic exer­cise con­trol group (stretch­ing and ton­ing exer­cise). Par­tic­i­pants exer­cised 3h per week for 6 months. Col­combe et al. scanned the par­tic­i­pants’ brains before and after the train­ing period.

After 6 months, the brain vol­ume of the aer­o­bic exer­cis­ing group increased in sev­eral areas com­pared to the other group. Vol­ume increase occurred prin­ci­pally in frontal and tem­po­ral areas of the brain involved in exec­u­tive con­trol and mem­ory processes. The authors do not know what under­ly­ing cel­lu­lar changes might have caused these vol­ume changes. How­ever they sus­pect, based on ani­mal research, that vol­ume changes may be due to an increased num­ber of blood ves­sels and an increased num­ber of con­nec­tions between neurons.

How does phys­i­cal exer­cise com­pare to men­tal exercise?

Very few stud­ies have tried to com­pare the effect of phys­i­cal exer­cise and men­tal exer­cise on cog­ni­tive performance.brain books

When look­ing at each domain of research one notices the fol­low­ing differences:

- The effects of cog­ni­tive or men­tal exer­cise on per­for­mance seem to be very task spe­cific, that is trained tasks ben­e­fit from train­ing but the ben­e­fits do not trans­fer very well to tasks in which one was not trained.

- The effects of phys­i­cal exer­cise on per­for­mance seem broader. How­ever they do not gen­er­al­ize to all tasks. They ben­e­fit mostly tasks that involve executive-control com­po­nents (that is, tasks that require plan­ning, work­ing mem­ory, mul­ti­task­ing, resis­tance to distraction).

To my knowl­edge only one study tried to directly com­pare cog­ni­tive and fit­ness training:

Keep read­ing…

Happier, and Positive Psychology

LifeTwo, the web­site focused on all aspects of midlife chal­lenges, from midlife cri­sis to midlife career change, is pre­sent­ing a “How to be Happy” week, based on the work of Har­vard Pro­fes­sor Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar and his book “Hap­pier”. Dr. Ben-Shahar teaches Harvard’s most pop­u­lar class, on Pos­i­tive Psy­chol­ogy.

Today is their Day 1: From Happy to Hap­pier.

A num­ber of good blog­gers are col­lab­o­rat­ing: Hap­pi­ness Project, The Brazen Careerist, MenAlive, The Dat­ing God­dess, Boomer Chron­i­cles, Man-o-Pause, Aging­Back­wards. I will be hon­ored to pro­vide a guest col­umn, this Thurs­day, on how to iden­tify and over­come some com­mon brain-based obsta­cles to being happy, and how you apply the lat­est brain sci­ence devel­op­ments in your own quest to be hap­pier. In the mean­while, you may enjoy the post On being pos­i­tive, and check out Day 1: From Happy to Hap­pier.

Enjoy the week!