Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


Quick brain teasers to train your attention and working memory


Here you have a few fun men­tal exer­cises to train your atten­tion and work­ing mem­ory (the capac­ity to hold mul­ti­ple pieces of infor­ma­tion in the mind, and to use them real-time). Given them a try today and over the weekend…they are not as easy as they may sound!

  1. Say the days of the week back­wards, then in alpha­bet­i­cal order. If you speak another lan­guage, try doing the same in that language.
  2. Say the months of the year in alpha­bet­i­cal order. Then, for extra cog­ni­tive chal­lenge, try doing so back­wards, in reverse alpha­bet­i­cal order.
  3. Find the sum of your date of birth, mm/dd/yyyy. Want more quick brain teasers? Do the same with friends’ and rel­a­tives’ date of birth.
  4. Quick, name two objects for every let­ter in your com­plete name. Work up to five objects, try­ing to use dif­fer­ent items each time.
  5. Wher­ever you are, look around and within two min­utes, try to find 5 green things that will fit in your pocket, and 5 red objects that are too big to fit.

Read the rest of this entry »

Training Young Brains to Behave

Great arti­cle in the New York Times titled Train­ing Young Brains to Behave. A cou­ple of quotes:

- “But just as biol­ogy shapes behav­ior, so behav­ior can accel­er­ate biol­ogy. And a small group of edu­ca­tional and cog­ni­tive sci­en­tists now say that men­tal exer­cises of a cer­tain kind can teach chil­dren to become more self-possessed at ear­lier ages, reduc­ing stress lev­els at home and improv­ing their expe­ri­ence in school. Researchers can test this abil­ity, which they call exec­u­tive func­tion, and they say it is more strongly asso­ci­ated with school suc­cess than I.Q.”

- “We know that the pre­frontal cor­tex is not fully devel­oped until the 20s, and some peo­ple will ask, 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…

Pump up those little grey cells

Great arti­cle in the UK’s Sun­day Times yes­ter­day: Pump up those lit­tle grey cells, list­ing a Neuronsvari­ety of free or inex­pen­sive brain health-related resources.

We are hon­ored (even hon­oured, I’d dare say) that they started the list with our com­pli­men­tary Brain Fit­ness 101 e-Guide:

- “The sci­ence behind some of the more out­landish claims for com­puter games that are sup­posed to improve your cog­ni­tive pow­ers, is a mat­ter of debate. How­ever, you don’t need to pay £20 to give a game a try. The inter­net fea­tures a host of web­sites that can stretch your imag­i­na­tion and improve your men­tal prowess in a range of skills. Some are expen­sive rip-offs, but many are free, as our guide to the best of them shows.”

- “Begin by 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 »