Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

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Information Overload? Seven Learning and Productivity Tips

We often talk in this blog about how to expand fundamental abilities or cognitive functions, like attention, or memory, or emotional self-regulation. Think of them as muscles one can train. Now, it is also important to think of ways one can use our existing muscles more efficiently.

Let’s talk about how to manage better the overwhelming amount of information available these days.

Hundreds of thousands of new books, analyst reports, scientific papers published every year. Millions of websites at our googletips. The flow of data, information and knowledge is growing exponentially, stretching the capacity of our not-so-evolved brains. We can complain all day that we cannot process ALL this flow. Now, let me ask, should we even try?

Probably not. Why engage in a losing proposition. Instead, let me offer a few strategies that can help manage this flow of information better.

1. Prioritize: strategic consulting firms such as McKinsey and BCG train their staff in the so-called 80/20 rule: 80% of effects are caused by the top 20% of causes. In a company, 80% sales may come from 20% of the accounts. Implication: focus on that top 20%; don’t spend too much time on the 80% that only account for 20%.

2. Leverage a scientific mindset. Scientists shift through tons of data in efficient, goal-oriented ways. How do they do it? By first stating a hypothesis and then looking for data. For example, an untrained person could spend weeks “boiling the ocean”, trying to read as much as possible, in a very fragmentary way, about how physical exercise affects our brain. A trained scientist would first define clear hypotheses and preliminary assumptions, such as “Physical exercise can enhance the brain’s ability to generate new neurons” or “Those new neurons appear in the hippocampus”, and then look specifically for data that corroborates or refutes those sentences, enabling him or her to refine the hypotheses further, based on accumulated knowledge, in a virtuous learning cycle.

3. Beat your enemies-like excessive TV watching. Watching TV five hours a day has an effect on your brain: it trains one’s brain to become a visual, usually unreflective, passive recipient of information. You may have heard the expression “Cells that fire together wire together”. Our brains are composed of billions of neurons, each of which can have thousand of connections to other neurons. Any thing we do in life is going to activate a specific networks of neurons. Visualize a million neurons firing at the same time when you watch a TV program. Now, the more TV you watch, the more those neurons will fire together, and therefore the more they will wire together (meaning that the connections between them become, physically, stronger), which then creates automatic-like reactions. A heavy TV-watcher is making himself or herself more passive, unreflective, person. Exactly the opposite of what one needs to apply the other tips described here. Continue Reading

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 »

Exercise Your Brain! Enjoy Learning!

Dr. Michael Merzenich has written a great post titled “cognitive reserve is a good thing to work on!. Recommended reading if you are interested in another scientific perspective for cognitive training.

I agree we should know more (as usual), especially for policy decisions, but there is enough research, from Marian Diamond et al (see beautiful essays below) work on enriched environments to cognitive reserve and training, that is shouting at all of us: Exercise Your Brain! Enjoy Learning! Statistics such as that the average American-including kids- watch 5 hours of TV daily… don’t mean “we need more research” but “how can we change this”?.

See a couple of quotes from my recent interview with Yaakov Stern on the Cognitive Reserve.

  • “well…I was pretty surprised when, years ago, a reporter from Seventeen magazine requested an interview. I was really curious to learn why Read the rest of this entry »

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).

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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.

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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 Health and Fitness Workshops

Today I have an announcement to make. You probably are seeing all the articles about Brain Fitness in the press and wondering, “What is this all about?”, “Can someone help me navigate through all the programs out there?”, “How is Brain Fitness relevant to me in my personal life or at work?”. Well…we are delivering a series of workshops to companies and organizations combining modules -including scientific overview, the industry trends and key players, fun team-building exercises- that can be tailored to each organization’s specific needs. Sessions last from 1 to 6 hours, depending on the group’s composition and agenda and are delivered either in person or via web conference.

We want to be able to reach more organizations, so please let us know of any ideas!

Some recent examples

1. Managing Stress for Peak Performance (we mentioned some notes on an Accenture session)

New and challenging situations – such as taking on new responsibilities– can trigger reactions in our brain and body that limit or even block our decision-making abilities. These reactions may also harm our long-term brain power and health. Although we cannot avoid change and stressful situations, we can learn how to manage our stress levels to ensure peak performance-even in tough moments. The latest neuroscience research proves that stress management is a trainable “mental muscle.” This is true for any high pressure profession, be it trading, sports, or simply modern life.

2. The Science of Brain Health and Brain Fitness (similar to what I will teach at UC Berkeley OLLI)

Neuroscientists have shown how the human brain retains neuroplasticity (the ability to rewire itself) and neurogenesis (the creation of new neurons) during its full lifetime, leading to a new understanding of Read the rest of this entry »

Brain Health for lawyers

The Complete Lawyer, a legal publication distributed to bar members in several states, just published an article on Ten Important Truths About Aging: How we age is at least partially under our control, By Elkhonon Goldberg and Alvaro Fernandez.
We were happy to contribute to the ongoing debate about ethics and aging in the legal profession, building on our previous post on the topic.
What are those “Ten Truths”? Well, here you are the outline:

Brain class at UC-Berkeley Osher Lifelong Learning Institute

If you are based in North California, you may be interested in the classes just announced by the UC Berkeley Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. “Berkeley OLLI is an inquiring and stimulating community of adults, age 50 and above, exploring new areas of knowledge and traditional disciplines, challenging and fascinating subjects.” If you are not in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can check the closest Lifelong Learning Center to you in either the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute network or the Elderhostel one.

You can see a listing of their classes for the Fall 2007 session, on a fascinating variety of topics. Keeping our educational activities since 2005 (first delivered in SFSU), I will be teaching the following class

The Science of Brain Health and Brain Fitness (more here)

October 9-30th, 4 classes, 6.30-8.30pm

Location: University Hall, UC Berkeley

Description: Neuroscientists have shown how the human brain retains neuroplasticity (the ability to rewire itself) and neurogenesis (creation of new neurons) during its full lifetime, leading to a new understanding of what aging means. In this class, we will review the science behind some of key concepts in this field and explore their implications on our lifestyles: neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, the Cognitive Reserve theory for healthy aging, computer-based cognitive training programs, emotional self-regulation, and the 4 pillars for lifelong Brain Health. We have all heard “Use it or lose it”. Latest research suggests, “Use it and improve it”.

If you are interested in learning more about the classes, you can attend the open House on Tuesday, September 18, 10:00 am to 12:00 noon, at the Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Avenue, Berkeley. I can only say that the SFSU classes were a lot of fun and I am sure the Berkeley ones will be as compelling.

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