Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


A Brain Fitness Vacation

San PedroA year ago we wrote a Glossary where we defined Brain Fitness as “the general state of good, sharp, brain and mind, especially as the result of mental and physical exercise and proper nutrition” and a Brain Fitness Program as a “structured set of brain exercises, usually computer-based, designed to train specific brain areas and functions in targeted ways, and measured by brain fitness assessments.”

Now, thanks to this recent article Alvaro and Lisa’s Brain Vacation, we can add Brain Fitness Vacation: “A brain fitness vacation is like a regular vacation, only you attend events, do exercises, and arrange for experiences that address the aspects of good brain health: physical exercise, mental exercise, good nutrition, and stress management.”

Dave Bunnell, the founder and editor of new magazine ELDR (and previously editor of PC World, PC Magazine, Upside, and many other magazines) met Dr. Goldberg and myself after our speech in SFSU last May. When he showed an interest in writing a story, and I mentioned half-jokingly that it would have to wait a few weeks since my wife and I were about to take a much needed “brain fitness vacation”, he said, well, maybe that’s the story!.

You can read the full article here. For the benefit of the attendants to my lectures this week, who may be looking for some additional brain exercises, here go some quotes:

  • Guesstimation. Lisa asks Alvaro a question, “How many trees are there in San Francisco?” To come up with an answer, Alvaro first tries to guess how many trees, on average, there are in a city block. He then calculates approximately how many blocks there are in a square mile, followed by how many square miles there are in San Francisco, and so on.
  • Number Series. Alvaro says, “Two, three,” and Lisa replies, “four, six.” Alvaro then says, “Six, nine,” and Lisa replies, “Eight, twelve.” He says,”Ten, fifteen,” and the sequence goes on as long and as fast as you can keep doing it.
  • Haiku. During the entire vacation, Alvaro and Lisa composed haiku for each other every morning. The rule was they couldn’t write them down. They had to create them in their heads and remember them.
  • Sensory training. Lisa puts a piece of chocolate into Alvaro’s mouth while his eyes are closed. He lets it melt completely without chewing and without opening his eyes. Next, he puts a grape in Lisa’s mouth.
  • Visualizations. Alvaro and Lisa sit quietly for about 15 minutes, breathe deeply using their diaphragms, and visualize special moments from their past, such as the most beautiful view they’ve ever seen, or a loving personal moment.


Pic credit: San Pedro de Alcantara, Spain (Wikipedia)

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 »

Books on neuroplasticity and memory training

Neuroplasticity: the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new connections throughout life. (see more concepts in our Glossary).

We coudn’t be happier about the growing number of books popularizing the key lessons about brain training that Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg has been researching and writing about for years, and that motivated us to embark ourselves in the SharpBrains adventure.

Discover Magazine presents a great article, Rewiring the Brain, reviewing two recent books.

  • The subtitle is “Neuroplasticity can allow for treatment of senility, post-traumatic stress, ­obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression and Buddhists have been capitalizing on it for millenia.” I would add that the strong value of lifelong learning present in jesuit and jewish traditions reflects the same wisdom. Some quotes:
  • “Two new books, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain (Ballantine Books, $24.95) by science journalist Sharon Begley and The Brain That Changes Itself (Viking, $24.95) by psychiatrist Norman Doidge, offer masterfully guided tours through the burgeoning field of neuroplasticity research. Each has its own style and emphasis; both are excellent.”
  • “Finally, both authors conclude that adult neuroplasticity is a vastly undertapped resource, one with which Western medicine and psychology are just now coming to grips. An important emerging research agenda is to Read the rest of this entry »

Brain Health Newsletter, February Edition, and Brain Awareness Week

We hope you are enjoying the growing coverage of Brain Fitness as much as we are. Below you have the Brain Fitness Newsletter we sent a few days ago-you can subscribe to this monthly email update in the box on the right hand side.

In this post, we will briefly cover:

I. Press: see what CBS and Time Magazine are talking about. SharpBrains was introduced in the Birmingham News, Chicago Tribune and in a quick note carried by the American Psychological Association news service.

II. Events: we are outreach partners for the Learning & the Brain conference, which will gather neuroscientists and educators, and for the Dana Foundation’s Brain Awareness Week.

III. Program Reviews: The Wall Street Journal reviewed six different programs for brain exercise and aging, and the one we offer is one of the two winners. A college-level counseling center starts offering our stress management one. And we interview a Notre Dame scientist who has conducted a replication study for the working memory training program for kids with ADD/ ADHD.

IV. New Offerings: we have started to offer two information packages that can be very useful for people who want to better understand this field before they commit to any particular program: learn more about our Brain Fitness 101 guide and Exercise Your Brain DVD.

V. Website and Blog Summary: we revamped our home page and have had a very busy month writing many good articles. We also hosted two “Blog Carnivals”- don’t you want to know what that means?
Read the rest of this entry »

Brain Fitness Blog Carnival #1

Brain Fitness CarnivalWelcome to the inaugural edition of the Brain Fitness Blog Carnival. The timing couldn’t be better  you have probably seen the featured CBS News/TIME Series on Brain Neuroplasticity.

Thanks to the over 40 people who submitted posts. We have had to select the posts we enjoyed the most to help facilitate an engaging and informed conversation.

Learning is physical. Our experience literally shapes our brains. And vice versa. The media seems to be focusing mostly on brain fitness for seniors, but its implications go beyond that, as you will see in this post by Caroline: What is Brain Fitness?, and the articles in this carnival.

Science-based understanding is evolving from “Use it or Lose It” to “Use It and Improve It.”  As Fast Company’s Alan Deutschman provocatively puts it in his last book, Change or Die. We couldn’t agree more with his summary recommendation: “Relate. Repeat. Reframe.” Alan presents a blog article announcing his book (here is his original article). Read the rest of this entry »

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