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Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


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 neg­a­tive­ly impacts the immune sys­tem’s defens­es.

Cog­ni­tive train­ing (or Brain Fit­ness Train­ing): the field of brain exer­cis­es designed to help work out spe­cif­ic “men­tal mus­cles. The prin­ci­ple under­ly­ing cog­ni­tive train­ing is to help improve “core” abil­i­ties, such as atten­tion, mem­o­ry, pro­cess­ing speed, prob­lem-solv­ing.

Cog­ni­tive Reserve (or Brain Reserve): the­o­ry that address­es the fact that indi­vid­u­als vary con­sid­er­ably in the sever­i­ty of cog­ni­tive aging and clin­i­cal demen­tia. Men­tal stim­u­la­tion, edu­ca­tion and occu­pa­tion­al lev­el are believed to be major active com­po­nents of build­ing a cog­ni­tive reserve that can help resist the attacks of men­tal dis­ease.

fMRI: func­tion­al mag­net­ic res­o­nance imag­ing (fMRI) is a non-inva­sive neu­roimag­ing tech­nique that enables researchers see images of chang­ing blood flow in the brain asso­ci­at­ed with neur­al activ­i­ty. This allows images to be gen­er­at­ed that reflect which struc­tures are acti­vat­ed (and how) dur­ing per­for­mance of dif­fer­ent tasks.

Heart Rate Vari­abil­i­ty (HRV): describes the fre­quen­cy of the car­diac cycle, and is one of the best pre­dic­tors of stress and anx­i­ety. Our hear rate is not “flat” or con­stant: HRV mea­sures the pat­tern of change.

Mind­ful­ness-Based Stress Reduc­tion (MBSR): yoga and med­i­ta­tion prac­tices designed to enable effec­tive respons­es to stress, pain, and ill­ness.

Neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis: the process by which neu­rons are cre­at­ed all through­out our lives.

Neu­roimag­ing: tech­niques that either direct­ly or indi­rect­ly image the struc­ture, func­tion, or phar­ma­col­o­gy of the brain. Recent tech­niques (such as fMRI) have enabled researchers to under­stand bet­ter the liv­ing human brain.

Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty: the brain’s abil­i­ty to reor­ga­nize itself by form­ing new con­nec­tions through­out life.

PubMed: very use­ful tool to search for pub­lished stud­ies. “PubMed is a ser­vice of the U.S. Nation­al Library of Med­i­cine that includes over 16 mil­lion cita­tions from MEDLINE and oth­er life sci­ence jour­nals for bio­med­ical arti­cles back to the 1950s. PubMed includes links to full text arti­cles and oth­er relat­ed resources.”

Work­ing mem­o­ry: the abil­i­ty to keep infor­ma­tion cur­rent for a short peri­od while using this infor­ma­tion. Work­ing mem­o­ry is used for con­trol­ling atten­tion, and deficits in work­ing mem­o­ry capac­i­ty lead to atten­tion prob­lems. Recent research has proven that work­ing mem­o­ry train­ing is pos­si­ble and help­ful for peo­ple with ADD/ ADHD.

Any oth­er key­word you would like explained?

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14 Responses

  1. I would like you to add self-direct­ed neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty, Alvaro.( We talk about that at Brains on Pur­pose.) I think it is impor­tant to dis­tin­guish self-direct­ed neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty from neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty.

  2. Have your read “The Com­pas­sion­ate Brain” by Ger­ald Huther? It’s very good on neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty. As is Sharon Beg­ley’s “Change Your Mind, Train Your Brain.”

  3. Alvaro says:

    Hel­lo Stephanie, the most impor­tant thing first is for peo­ple to under­stand what neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty is and how it happens…we can lat­er talk about more spe­cif­ic options. “self-direct­ed” applies to many of those con­cepts, not just neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty. You will enjoy my last post

    Michael, many thanks for the sug­ges­tions. I enjoyed Beg­ley’s book; and will take a look at Huther’s. Here you have a list of books we rec­om­mend

  4. Cindy says:

    I am always fas­ci­nat­ed by the study of the brain. The brain’s capa­bil­i­ties are amaz­ing. I think there are a great ben­e­fits in brain exer­cis­es. Why would­n’t we be able to improve our brain mus­cle?! Thank you for con­tribut­ing your arti­cle to Fit­ness for Moms Blog Car­ni­val.

  5. Alvaro says:

    Thank you, Cindy. My wife is preg­nant (our first kid) so we need to start think­ing about fit­ness for moms…

  6. Rob Kanzer says:




    Cog­ni­tive train­ing (or Brain Fit­ness Train­ing): the field of brain exer­cis­es designed to help work out spe­cif­ic “mental muscles”. The prin­ci­ple under­ly­ing cog­ni­tive train­ing is to help improve “core” abil­i­ties, such as atten­tion, mem­o­ry, pro­cess­ing spped, prob­lem-solv­ing.

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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