Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


Cognitive Training and Brain Fitness Computer Programs: Interview with Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg

Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg is a clinical professor of neurology at New York University School of Medicine, and author of over 50 peer-reviewed papers. His areas of expertise include executive functions, memory, attention deficit disorder, dementia, traumatic brain injury, and others. Dr. Goldberg was a student and close associate of the great neuropsychologist Alexander Luria. His book The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind (Oxford University Press, 2001) has received critical acclaim and has been published in 12 languages. His recent book The Wisdom Paradox: How Your Mind Can Grow Stronger As Your Brain Grows Older (Gotham Books, Penguin, 2005) offers an innovative understanding of cognitive aging and what can be done to forestall cognitive decline. It has been, or is in the process of being, published in 13 languages.

We are fortunate that Dr. Goldberg is SharpBrains Co-Founder and Chief Scientific Advisor. His book The Wisdom Paradox inspired me to embark in this path, and has been a key sounding board in the development of what we are doing.


Key take-aways

– “Use It and Get More of It” reflects reality better than “Use It or Lose It”.

– Let’s demystify cognition and the brain. Everyone needs to have a basic understanding of the brain-and how to cultivate it.

Well-directed mental exercise is a must for cognitive enhancement and healthy aging.


Roots: Vygotsky and Luria

Alvaro Fernandez (AF): Elkhonon, maybe we could start with Vygotsky. At one of my Stanford classes, I became fascinated by his theory of learning. Which links into modern neuropsychology.

Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg (EG): Vygotsky proposed that learning requires internalization. And that internalization equals, literally, a change in the brain of the learner. Of course there weren advanced neuroimaging techniques those days, so scientists could only speculate about what happened in healthy brains. But they could carefully analyze what happened with patients who had suffered any kind of serious brain problem, from strokes to traumatic brain injury. And this is how neuropsychology was born: Alexander Luria, Vygotsky disciple, and my own mentor, was commissioned to help rehabilitate Russian soldiers with brain injuries during WWII. This provided invaluable clinical material for understanding the mechanisms of the healthy brain. Much of modern cognitive neuroscience rests its foundation in Luria’s work.


AF: and now we have new neuroimaging techniques.

EG: Precisely. It is often said that new neuroimaging methods have changed neuroscience in the same way that the telescope changed astronomy. We use MRI, PET, SPECT, fMRI and MEG both in neuroscience research and in clinical practice. None of these techniques is perfect, but used properly they provide us with a much better understanding than we had only 30 years ago.

Research and work

AF: please tell us about your main research and practical interests.

EG: As you can see in my papers and books, I will categorize them in 3 areas-a) computer-based cognitive training/ Brain Fitness overall, b) healthy cognitive aging, and c) frontal lobes and executive functions. I am also interested in memory, hemispheric interaction, and in a general theory of cortical functional organization, but we will leave this for another occasion and focus today on those three areas.

First, Cognitive Training/ Brain Fitness. Rigorous and targeted cognitive training has been used in clinical practice for many years. It can help improve memory, attention, confidence and competence, reasoning skills, even how to reduce anxiety and deal with uncomfortable situations.

Second, healthy cognitive aging. The brain evolves as we age. Some areas, such as pattern recognition, get better with age. Some require extra-workouts in order to reduce “chinks in the armor” and increase neuroprotection through the Cognitive (or Brain) Reserve). Hence, the need for targeted cognitive training.

Third, the Frontal lobes and executive functions, which permeate seemingly very different problems such as ADHD and Alzheimer’s, are critical for our identity and successful daily functioning so they require extra attention.

Frontal Lobes and executive functions

AF: Please tell us more about what the Frontal Lobes are

EG: We researchers typically call them the Executive Brain. The prefrontal cortex is young by evolutionary terms, and is the brain area critical to adapt to new situations, plan for the future, and self-regulate our actions in order to achieve long-term objectives. We could say that that part of the brain, right behind our forehead, acts as the conductor of an orchestra, directing and integrating the work of other parts of the brain.

I provide a good example in The Executive Brain book, where I explain how I was able to organize my escape from Russia into the US.

Significantly, the pathways that connect the frontal lobes with the rest of the brain are slow to mature, reaching full operational state between ages 18 and 30, or maybe even later. And, given that they are not as hard-wired as other parts of the brain, they are typically the first areas to decline.

Cognitive Training and Brain Fitness

AF: And is that one of the areas where cognitive training/ Brain Fitness Programs can help

EG: Yes. Most programs I have seen so far are better at training other brain areas, which are also very important, but we are getting there, with examples such as working memory training, emotional self-regulation and domain-specific decision-making. Some of the spectacular research and clinical findings of the last 20 years that remain to be discovered by the population at large are that we enjoy lifelong brain plasticity and neurogenesis, that the rate of development of new neurons can be influenced by cognitive activities, and that intense mental challenges provide extra resistance to aging.

Exercising our brains systematically ways is as important as exercising our bodies. In my experience, “Use it or lose it” should really be “Use it and get more of it”. And computer-based programs are proving to be a great vehicle for that.

Emotions and Art

AF: We have been talking mostly about cognition or “thinking”. What about the role of emotions, as shown by the great research by Damasio?

EG: Great question. Until recently, emotions were simply not relevant for many cognitive neuroscientists. That is changing, and there is more and more research looking into what makes us “uniquely human”: attributes like motivation, judgment, empathy, insight into others, emotional self-regulation.

AF: how does that link into the role of art? Can we consider art creation and appreciation as brain exercise?

EG: Indeed, and a great one. This is still open territory, but my personal opinion is that art’s main purpose is in fact exercising brains. As I mention in The Wisdom Paradox, I wouldn’t be surprised if piano lessons were shown to improve overall sharpness and lucidity. Any activity changes the brain, and systematic programs can be designed to lead that change in a better way than random daily activities. Learning a complex skill such as learning the piano helps train and develop some parts of the brain. Well-designed computer-programs help train and develop other parts.

Key Messages

AF: if we had to summarize your key messages to the public, based on your research and clinical career, what would you say?

EG: first, I would say, “Forget about Use It or Lose It”. It is “Use It and Get More of It!”. Second, I would like to contribute to demystify cognition and the brain, enabling people to increase their self-awareness, their knowledge of the brain and how to cultivate it throughout life. Finally, I would highlight the importance of well-directed mental exercise, on one hand, and of supportive social networks, on the other. I am enthused about the opportunity to work with you and SharpBrains and get the word out.

AF: so are we. It is a pleasure to collaborate on such an endeavor. Which I am sure will provide us with plenty of brain exercise.

EG: as long as you don’t stress out, that’s good! Good night, Alvaro.

AF: Good night, Elkhonon.


Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychology Interview Series: in-depth interviews with 11 scientists and experts in cognitive training and brain fitness.

Books on neuroplasticity and memory training: reviews of Train Your Brain, Change Your Mind, by Sharon Begley, and The Brain That Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge. Both books are fascinating and powerful; each would have merited appearing in the 2007 New York Times List of 100 Notable Books.

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16 Responses

  1. Andy says:

    His work provides extra motivation (for me personally, at least) to keep my mind active and challenged. There’s a time and a place for intentional “down time” but not the mental (to sometimes accompany physical) laziness that seems to be fairly common today. I enjoy life more when I’m intellectually stimulated.

  2. Alvaro says:

    Andy, thanks for your nice comment. Yes, mental stimulation is important “food” for our brains. Yes, “intentional “down time”” is also needed to manage stress.

    Keep enjoying life

  3. Marie Matthews says:

    1) I just read ” The Wisdom Paradox”. I live in LA and I am a teacher, thus not very rich. I am 63 years old. Does Dr. Golberg offer software for people like me to use on my own computer and enhance my brain as I transition into old age?
    If not, are there decent alternatives?

    2) I teach “at risk students” in an alternative school in the inner city. My students are characterized by a total or partial lack of the “executive” abilities of the frontal lobes ( planning, empathy. problem solving etc…). Many also exhibit symptoms of Dislexia, ADD, Depression …. Coming from poor socio-economic background where decent healthcare is rare they tend to self-medicate with drugs (mainly marijana) and alcohol and in the process seem to worsen their problems.
    Intuitively I have based my teaching on developing brain skills to help with the traits they are missing. Thus my interest in brain research. But my efforts have been haphazard and not systematic because I obviously lack the necessary knowledge. Is there anything that can help me (from books to sofware) to create a more effective program?

    I would be so grateful if you could help me. Thank you.

    Marie Matthews, San Pedro (LA) California

  4. Alvaro says:

    Dear Marie,

    First of all, thanks for contacting us. We are very happy that you read The Wisdom Paradox.

    1) The programs that Dr. Goldberg uses in his clinical practice would not necessarily be appropriate for a healthy person, such as yourself. (And in this website we do not offer clinical advice). From we programs we offer now, the one that we would recommend for you is MindFit Comprehensive Workout Program. You can read more information in our Get Started section

    2) Great question regarding program for executive function development in teenagers. This is a new field, and we have not found a tool we recommend for overall frontal lobe training for teenagers. We also do not provide medical advice for people with specific conditions-that would be a role for an school psychologist, probably you have resources available at the district level.

    The one program available that could help a good number of your students (and staff) is Freeze-Framer Stress Management Program, mentioned in this Technology & Learning article It is the best program we have found for emotional self-regulation (anxiety reduction, anger management, reduction of impulsivity) and has both good science and good school-based testimonials to support its value for teachers, school administrators and students. Your school could start by getting one copy, for the principal or school psychologist office, that can be shared by as many people as you want (there are separate log-ins). Some schools apply for grants to be able to install the program in several computers in their labs. You can learn more in our Get Started Section, or in the Solutions one, under Schools.

    Will be happy to talk next week, and provide more context and address your questions.

    Regards, and happy 2007

  5. am interested in purchasing the sharp brain computer softwear program. recently had my mom diagnosed with alzheimers.any help with where to purchase would be appreciated.

  6. Alvaro says:

    Dear Karen,

    Sorry to hear about your mom. None of the programs we have is aimed at people with Alzheimer’s (we focus on prevention and cognitive improvement for healthy individuals), in principle. Your mom’s doctor should see if our comprehensive mental workout (in the Get Started section) might be helpful for her, based on her situation and priorities.

    The Alzheimer’s Foundation has a number of books and resources-they may also know of computer-programs more helpful for your mom.


  7. Let me train you twice per week for a month, and your physical fitness will improve,
    relieve stress, build an unbelievable self confidence, tone and tighten all muscles, while learning a fantastic self defense, all fore mentioned benefits accomplished training only a total of one hour weekly.

  8. Alvaro says:

    Hello Rusty, we are on the same boat, with complementary focus. Your experience is in physical training, which we often say is one of the key pillars of brain health. Now, the point is that is not the only pillar; if you want to exercise specific brain areas, or “mental muscles”, a well-designed mental workout may be more efficient and direct. Please spend some more time on the site, and let us know how to make this point more clear.

  9. Sean Pedersen says:

    A local private school is suggesting a brain based computer program they call the SMaRts program in order to teach our daughter to learn auditory receptive skills to develop her learning and language and reasoning. Our daughter is 9 years old and we believe she can benefit greatly from this program but we cannot find this program anywhere. Apparently there are different levels to complete based on accuracy, then speed, then speed and accuracy. Once a student completes a level fireworks go off on the computer screen and they are congratulated! Do you have any insight as to the name of this program, who sells it or where it can be found? Thanks, Sean

  10. Alvaro says:

    Hello Sean,

    I have never heard of “SMaRts program”. Which is surprising, because we are quite up to speed with all cognitive training literature. The closest I can think of is that the school is using Scientific Learning’s Fast ForWord, and for sone reason decided to rename it. But you should ask for the real name and specific peer-reviewed studies on its validity. Some other tips to evaluate computer-based programs:

  11. Ellen Nash says:

    Do you have online courses available? I am a Special Education teacher and want to learn more about working with disabilities and how the brain can be trained using “games”.

  12. Alvaro says:

    Hello Ellen,

    We offered some online webinars last month, and may be offering them again. Please subscribe to our newsletter to be notified.

    Now, the best resource for your school may be our Market Report, which provides an overview of the whole field. We offer discounts to schools and academic institutions.


  13. Dr. Chris Wolf says:

    Dr. Goldberg is a former professor of mine. He is a virtual encyclopedia of neuroscience. I highly recommend his books which are a joy to read.

  14. Alvaro says:

    Chris, thank you for vsiting us and your comment. I couldn´t agree more!

  15. Robert Forsythe MD says:

    I would like any information on treatment of anoxic brain injury. Including erythropoetin, cognitive exercises ie computer games, physical exercise, vit B supplements, omega 3, return to work, or other treatments to shorten recovery or to improve outcome at one year.
    Thank you Robert Forsythe MD

  16. Dear Robert, we don’t offer clinical advice via this blog, I suggest you consult with a neuropsychologist to help direct the rehab of your patient. Regards

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