Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


Education AND Lifelong Cognitive Activities build Cognitive Reserve and Delay Memory Loss

In a recently published scientific study (see Hall C, et al “Cognitive activities delay onset of memory decline in persons who develop dementia” Neurology 2009; 73: 356-361), Hall and colleagues examined how education and stimulating activities may interact to contribute to cognitive reserve. The study involved 488 initially healthy people, average age 79, who brain teasers job interviewenrolled in the Bronx Aging Study between 1980 and 1983. These individuals were followed for 5 years with assessments every 12 to 18 months (starting in 1980). At the start of the study, all participants were asked how many cognitive activities (reading, writing, crossword puzzles, board or card games, group discussions, or playing music) they participated in and for how many days a week. Researchers were able to evaluate the impact of self-reported participation these activities on the onset of accelerated memory decline in 101 individuals who developed dementia during the study.

Results showed that for every “activity day” (participation in one activity for one day a week) the subjects engaged in, they delayed for about two months the onset of rapid memory loss associated with dementia. Interestingly, the positive effect of brain-stimulating activities in this study appeared to be independent of a person’s level of education.

This is great news as it suggests that it is never too late to try to build up brain reserve. The more brain stimulating activities one does and the more often, the better for a stronger cognitive reserve.

The cognitive reserve hypothesis suggests that individuals with more cognitive reserve can experience more Alzheimer’s disease pathology in the brain (more plaques and tangles) without developing Alzheimer’s disease symptoms.

How does that work? Scientists are not sure but two possibilities are considered.
1. One is that more cognitive reserve means more brain reserve, that is more neurons and connections between neurons.
2. Another possibility is that more cognitive reserve means more compensatory processes (see my previous post “Education builds Cognitive Reserve for Alzheimers Disease Protection” for more details.)

Now, one may wonder about the difference types of mental stimulation available, including not only puzzles and such, but structured activities such as brain fitness software and meditation. Do we exercise our brain every time we think about something? What can one do to exercise one’s brain in ways that enhance capacity? Does aerobic fitness training also exercise one’s brain? What types of methodologies and products are available? Do they “work”? Are all the same?

Those are the types of questions we wanted to address in the book The SharpBrains Guide To Brain Fitness (available via We are proud of the recognition the book has started to obtain, including endorsements by leading scientists:

“The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness is the only book that I know of that seamlessly integrates latest information about cognitive health across the lifespan, with interviews with active researchers examining cognitive maintenance and enhancement, along with reviews of commercial products targeted to cognitive enhancement. The book should be very useful to anyone interested in brain care, both health care professionals and the public at large”.
– Arthur Kramer, Professor of Psychology at University of Illinois

“This SharpBrains book provides a very valuable service to a wide community interested in learning and brain topics. I found it interesting and helpful”
– Michael Posner, Emeritus Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Oregon, and first recipient of the Dogan Prize

Pascale MichelonPascale Michelon, Ph. D., is SharpBrains’ Research Manager for Educational Projects. Dr. Michelon has a Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology and has worked as a Research Scientist at Washington University in Saint Louis, in the Psychology Department. She conducted several research projects to understand how the brain makes use of visual information and memorizes facts. She is now an Adjunct Faculty at Washington University.


– Study: Hall C, et al “Cognitive activities delay onset of memory decline in persons who develop dementia” Neurology 2009; 73: 356-361

– Book: The SharpBrains Guide To Brain Fitness: 18 Interviews with Scientists, Practical Advice, and Product Reviews, to Keep Your Brain Sharp

8 Tips To Remember What You Read

Horizontal Stacked BooksDespite television, cell phones, and Twitter, traditional reading is still an important skill. Whether it is school textbooks, magazines, or regular books, people still read, though not as much as they used to. One reason that many people don’t read much is that they don’t read well. For them, it is slow, hard work and they don’t remember as much as they should. Students, for example,may have to read something several times before they understand and remember what they read.

Why? You would think that schools teach kids how to read well. Schools do try. I work with middle-school teachers and they tell me that many students are 2-3 years behind grade level in reading proficiency. No doubt, television, cell phones, and the Web are major contributors to this problem, which will apparently get worse if we don’t emphasize and improve reading instruction.

Some of the blame can be placed on the fads in reading teaching, such as phonics and “whole language,” which sometimes are promoted by zealots who don’t respect the need for both approaches. Much of the blame for poor reading skills can be laid at the feet of parents who set poor examples and, of course, on the youngsters who are too lazy to learn how to read well.

For all those who missed out on good reading skills, it is not too late. I summarize below what I think it takes to read with good speed and comprehension.

  1. Read with a purpose.
  2. Skim first.
  3. Get the reading mechanics right.
  4. Be judicious in highlighting and note taking.
  5. Think in pictures.
  6. Rehearse as you go along.
  7. Stay within your attention span and work to increase that span.
  8. Rehearse again soon.

1) Know Your Purpose

Everyone should have a purpose for their reading and think about how that purpose is being fulfilled during the actual reading. The advantage for remembering is that checking continuously for how the purpose is being fulfilled helps the reader to stay on task, to focus on the more relevant parts of the text, and to rehearse continuously as one reads. This also saves time and effort because relevant items are most attended.

Identifying the purpose should be easy if you freely choose what to read. Just ask yourself, “Why am I reading this?” If it is to be entertained or pass the time, then there is not much problem. But myriad other reasons could apply, such as:

  • to understand a certain group of people, such as Muslims, Jews, Hindus, etc.
  • to crystallize your political position, such as why a given government policy should be opposed.
  • to develop an informed plan or proposal.
  • to satisfy a requirement of an academic course or other assigned reading.

Many of us have readings assigned to us, as in a school environment. Or the boss may hand us a manual and say Read the rest of this entry »

10% Students may have working memory problems: Why does it matter?

Working memory is our ability to store and manipulate information for a brief time. It is typically measured by dual-tasks, where the individual has to remember an item while simultaneously processing a sometimes unrelated piece of information. A widely used working memory task is the reading span task where the individual reads a sentence, verifies it, and then recalls the final word. Individual differences in working memory performance are closely related to a range of academic skills such as reading, spelling, comprehension, and mathematics. Crucially, there is emerging research that working memory predicts learning outcomes independently of IQ. One explanation for the importance of working memory in academic attainment is that because it appears to be relatively unaffected by environmental influences, such as parental educational level and financial background, it measures a student’s capacity to acquire knowledge rather than what they have already learned.

However little is known about the consequences of low working memory capacity per se, independent of other associated learning difficulties. In particular, it is not known either what proportion of students with low working memory capacities has significant learning difficulties or what their behavioral characteristics are. The aim of a recent study published in Child Development (reference below) was to provide the first systematic large-scale examination of the cognitive and behavioral characteristics of school-aged students who have been identified solely on the basis of very low working memory scores.

In screening of over 3000 school-aged students in mainstream schools, 1 in 10 was identified as having working memory difficulties. There were several key findings regarding their cognitive skills. The first is that the majority of them performed below age-expected levels in reading and mathematics. This suggests that Read the rest of this entry »

Playing the Blame Game: Video Games Pros and Cons

Playing the Blame Game
— Video games stand accused of causing obesity, violence, and lousy grades. But new research paints a surprisingly complicated and positive picture, reports Greater Good Magazine‘s Jeremy Adam Smith.

Cheryl Olson had seen her teenage son play video games. But like many parents, she didn’t know much about them.

Then in 2004 the U.S. Department of Justice asked Olson and her husband, Lawrence Kutner, to run a federally funded study of how video games affect adolescents.

Olson and Kutner are the co-founders and directors of the Harvard Medical School’s Center for Mental Health and Media. Olson, a public health researcher, had studied the effects of media on behavior but had never examined video games, either in her research or in her personal life.

And so the first thing she did was watch over the shoulder of her son, Michael, as he played his video games. Then, two years into her research—which combined surveys and focus groups of junior high school students—Michael urged her to pick up a joystick. “I definitely felt they should be familiar with the games if they were doing the research,” says Michael, who was 16 at the time and is now 18.

Olson started with the PC game Read the rest of this entry »

Looking inside the Brain: is my Brain Fit?

MRI scanner neuroimaging

Today we have the pleasure to have Dr. Pascale Michelon, one of our new Expert Contributors, write her first article here. Enjoy, and please comment so we hear your thoughts and engage in a nice conversation.

(Btw, if you notice some similarity between the colors in the fMRI scan below and the look & feel of this site…well, the reason is that those orange-grey fMRI colors were our inspiration! the orange color denotes the most brain activation).

– Alvaro


You have probably heard about CAT and MRI scans (produced thanks to machines like the one to the top right). So you know that these are techniques that doctors and scientists use to look inside the brain.

You have probably also heard about brain fitness and how important it is to keep a healthy brain to be protected against age-related and disease-related brain damages.

The question we ask here is the following: Can we use brain scans to evaluate how fit the brain is? Before we try to answer this question let’s start with the basics and try to understand how brain scans work.

Brain imaging, also called neuroimaging, allows one to Read the rest of this entry »

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