Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


Physical and Mental Exercise: Why Pitch One Against the other?

Read­er There­sa Cerul­li just for­ward­ed this Let­ter to the Edi­tor that she had sent to the New York Times and went unpub­lished. The let­ter address­es the OpEd men­tioned here (pitch­ing phys­i­cal vs. men­tal exer­cise), and refers to the Cogmed work­ing mem­o­ry train­ing pro­gram, whose results have been stud­ied in mul­ti­ple papers pub­lished in top med­ical and sci­en­tif­ic jour­nals.


Dear Edi­tor:

I applaud San­dra Aamodt and Sam Wang for throw­ing some cold water on the cur­rent brain fit­ness craze in their recent New York Times Mag­a­zine Opin­ion Edi­to­r­i­al “Exer­cise on the Brain.”  They are cor­rect in label­ing the host of “men­tal fit­ness” prod­ucts that tar­get aging baby boomers as “inspired by sci­ence ”  not to be con­fused with actu­al­ly proven by sci­ence. For the last 30 years, terms like “brain plas­tic­i­ty” have been wide­ly and casu­al­ly used, cre­at­ing hype that risks drown­ing out the real break­throughs that brain researchers are mak­ing in this area.

How­ev­er, I would like to dis­tin­guish the “men­tal fit­ness” trend that Aamodt and Wang right­ly crit­i­cize from actu­al researched-based cog­ni­tive train­ing such as the Cogmed pro­gram devel­oped in Swe­den. Unlike “men­tal fit­ness” pro­grams, cog­ni­tive train­ing pro­grams focus very nar­row­ly on spe­cif­ic cog­ni­tive func­tions that research has shown to be plas­tic. This is in stark con­trast to com­pil­ing a smat­ter­ing of exer­cis­es or activ­i­ties that are gen­er­al­ly thought to be good for the brain, but lack true sci­en­tif­ic research and are ulti­mate­ly inef­fec­tive. Cog­ni­tive train­ing is not for every­one only those who expe­ri­ence deficits in spe­cif­ic cog­ni­tive func­tions that can be improved through per­sis­tent train­ing. A qual­i­fied clin­i­cal pro­fes­sion­al can deter­mine if and when cog­ni­tive train­ing is the right form of inter­ven­tion.

One spe­cif­ic type of cog­ni­tive train­ing that has proven to be effec­tive is the train­ing of work­ing mem­o­ry the abil­i­ty to hold infor­ma­tion in mind for a few sec­onds. As Aamodt and Wang point out, work­ing mem­o­ry is a crit­i­cal com­po­nent of exec­u­tive func­tion, a col­lec­tion of cog­ni­tive skills that togeth­er allow us to orga­nize, man­age and pri­or­i­tize activ­i­ties. Cogmed work­ing mem­o­ry train­ing offers more than just improve­ments in the trained task. Oth­er brain func­tions such as atten­tion, read­ing, and prob­lem solv­ing skills also improve with work­ing mem­o­ry train­ing. (Impor­tant research on the effec­tive­ness of work­ing mem­o­ry train­ing to improve atten­tion and exec­u­tive func­tion­ing was pub­lished in Aamondt’s Nature Neu­ro­science).

In my clin­i­cal prac­tice, I have had the plea­sure of observ­ing the often dra­mat­ic impact of Cogmed’s work­ing mem­o­ry train­ing pro­gram on the dai­ly lives of many of my patients who strug­gle with debil­i­tat­ing atten­tion prob­lems. Work­ing mem­o­ry train­ing is a research-based break­through for chil­dren and adults with atten­tion deficits, as well as vic­tims of stroke and trau­mat­ic brain injury. For clients with exec­u­tive func­tion­ing chal­lenges, Cogmed work­ing mem­o­ry train­ing tar­gets these very dif­fi­cul­ties which med­ica­tions so often fail to treat.

Baby boomers need to remain cau­tious when it comes to the foun­tain-of-youth promis­es of the brain fit­ness pro­grams. The key lies in draw­ing a clear line between the “men­tal fit­ness” fad and proven cog­ni­tive train­ing that has been val­i­dat­ed repeat­ed­ly in the lab­o­ra­to­ry and in clin­i­cal prac­tice.

There­sa Cerul­li, M.D.



For more infor­ma­tion on Cogmed work­ing mem­o­ry train­ing: click here.

You can also read our inter­view with the lead­ing neu­ro­sci­en­tist behind Cogmed, Dr. Torkel Kling­berg.

Our take: phys­i­cal and men­tal exer­cise are com­ple­men­tary tools to improve our brain health and per­for­mance. Fur­ther­more, stress man­age­ment and a good nutri­tion are impor­tant fac­tors to con­sid­er. None is a sil­ver bul­let, so efforts to pitch any of them vs. any of the oth­er are not help­ful. And some well-designed cog­ni­tive train­ing pro­grams have been shown to deserve their place in our toolk­its.

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3 Responses

  1. Michael says:

    I read about Cogmed work in Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can a while back and was real­ly impressed. Look­ing for­ward to read­ing more.

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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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