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.

He 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 astound­ing, 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.

Learn about the 2014 SharpBrains Summit in 2 minutes

Watch Larry King’s interview

» Click HERE in the USA, or HERE else­where (opens 28-min program)

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