Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


Exercise your brain in the Cognitive Age

In the past two days, The New York Times has pub­lished two excel­lent arti­cles on brain and cog­ni­tive fit­ness. Despite appear­ing in sep­a­rate sec­tions (tech­nol­o­gy and editorial), the two have more in com­mon than imme­di­ate­ly meets the eye. Both raise key ques­tions that politi­cians, health pol­i­cy mak­ers, busi­ness leaders, educators and consumers should pay atten­tion to.

1) First, Exer­cise Your Brain, or Else You’ll … Uh …, by Katie Hafn­er (5/3/08). Some quotes:

- “At the same time, boomers are seiz­ing on a mount­ing body of evi­dence that sug­gests that brains con­tain more plas­tic­i­ty than pre­vi­ous­ly thought, and many peo­ple are tak­ing mat­ters into their own hands, doing brain fit­ness exer­cis­es with the same inten­si­ty with which they attack a tread­mill.”

- “Alvaro Fer­nan­dez, whose brain fit­ness and con­sult­ing com­pa­ny, Sharp­Brains, has a Web site focused on brain fit­ness research. He esti­mates that in 2007 the mar­ket in the Unit­ed States for so-called neu­rosoft­ware was $225 mil­lion.”

- “Mr. Fer­nan­dez point­ed out that com­pared with, say, the phys­i­cal fit­ness indus­try, which brings in $16 bil­lion a year in health club mem­ber­ships alone, the brain fit­ness soft­ware indus­try is still in its infan­cy. Yet it is grow­ing at a 50 per­cent annu­al rate, he said, and he expects it to reach $2 bil­lion by 2015.”

- “Boomers believe they have ample rea­son to wor­ry. There is no defin­i­tive lab­o­ra­to­ry test to detect Alzheimer’s disease”. 

- “Smart peo­ple find new ways to exer­cise their brains that don’t involve buy­ing soft­ware or tak­ing expen­sive work­shops,” he (Note: mag­a­zine pub­lish­er David Bun­nell) said.

Arti­cle: Exer­cise Your Brain, or Else You’ll … Uh …

Com­ments:  I enjoyed the con­ver­sa­tions I had with the NYT reporter, Katie Hafn­er. The main 3 points I want­ed to con­vey were, and are:

a) The brain fit­ness soft­ware pro­grams men­tioned in the arti­cle (and others) are no more than “tools“ to exer­cise cer­tain brain functions. None of the products on the mar­ket today offer an over­all brain health solu­tion. Some pro­grams are help­ful at train­ing spe­cif­ic cog­ni­tive skills that tend to decline with age, others improve atten­tion or deci­sion mak­ing skills, and still others help assess cog­ni­tive func­tions. If health, edu­ca­tion and cor­po­rate executives as well as consumers become more famil­iar with the progress that cog­ni­tive sci­ence has made over the last 10–20 years, they will be able to make informed deci­sions about which, if any, tools, may help. This is what “smart peo­ple” do: adapt to new envi­ron­ments and use new tools appro­pri­ate­ly - with­out falling prey either to man­u­fac­tur­ers’ inflated/ con­fus­ing claims, or negat­ing the val­ue of those tools as a gen­er­al prin­ci­ple.

b) Many times, baby boomers wor­ried about their mem­o­ry tend to blame Alzheimer’s dis­ease. This reac­tion caus­es stress and anx­i­ety, which in turn harms the brain struc­tural­ly (by reducing neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis - the cre­ation of new neu­rons) and func­tion­al­ly (by reducing work­ing mem­o­ry and deci­sion-mak­ing abilities). Hence, stress man­age­ment or emo­tion­al self-reg­u­la­tion, is often a much need­ed cog­ni­tive train­ing inter­ven­tion.
c) The brain fit­ness market is grow­ing fast and this trend will con­tin­ue. This is not just a Nin­ten­do-fueled fad. The arti­cle reflects this point best. Part of the mar­ket con­fu­sion lies in the dis­con­nect between what com­put­er­ized brain fit­ness pro­grams can do (the ones with more sci­ence behind them than Nin­ten­do Brain Age) and what peo­ple seem to want them to do. Com­put­er­ized pro­grams can be an effi­cient way to exer­cise and train spe­cif­ic cog­ni­tive skills and improve pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and dai­ly life. Think of them as sim­i­lar to the range of equip­ment in a health club. If you walk into a health club today, you will find machines for abdom­i­nal mus­cles and others for car­dio training, biceps, etc. Sim­i­lar­ly, there are brain fit­ness programs to improve audi­to­ry pro­cess­ing, oth­ers to expand work­ing memory, main­tain dri­ving-relat­ed skills, etc.
How­ev­er, what the cur­rent brain fit­ness soft­ware programs can’t do is to pre­vent Alzheimer’s dis­ease alto­geth­er. At most, there is cir­cum­stan­tial evi­dence that they can (togeth­er with, say, learn­ing how to play the piano, tak­ing on a sec­ond or third career, or nur­tur­ing new stim­u­lat­ing inter­ests) help low­er the prob­a­bil­i­ty of devel­op­ing Alzheimer’s symp­toms. But, again, no spe­cif­ic program has been shown to be bet­ter than anoth­er from this “anti-Alzheimer’s” point of view. The best pro­tec­tion is to lead rich, stim­u­lat­ing lives.
The second excel­lent arti­cle in the New York Times on a relat­ed top­ic was an opin­ion piece by David Brooks, which pro­vides the per­fect con­text for why cog­ni­tive fit­ness and train­ing deserves more atten­tion than it gets today.
2) David Brooks: The Cog­ni­tive Age (5/2/08). Quotes: 

-“It’s the skills rev­o­lu­tion. We’re mov­ing into a more demand­ing cog­ni­tive age. In order to thrive, peo­ple are com­pelled to become bet­ter at absorb­ing, pro­cess­ing and com­bin­ing infor­ma­tion.”

-“the most impor­tant part of information’s jour­ney is the last few inch­es — the space between a person’s eyes or ears and the var­i­ous regions of the brain. Does the indi­vid­ual have the capac­i­ty to under­stand the infor­ma­tion? Does he or she have the train­ing to exploit it?”

-“But the cog­ni­tive age par­a­digm empha­sizes psy­chol­o­gy, cul­ture and ped­a­gogy — the spe­cif­ic process­es that fos­ter learn­ing.”

Arti­cle: David Brooks: The Cog­ni­tive Age

Com­ments: Beau­ti­ful­ly said. Yes, we are “mov­ing into a more demand­ing cog­ni­tive age.” This is true for the rea­sons that Brooks aludes to: because of globalization that requires work­ers to keep their cog­ni­tive skills sharp to com­pete. But, there are oth­er rea­sons such as current demo­graph­ic, health and sci­en­tif­ic trends. Peo­ple are liv­ing longer which means that they have more oppor­tu­ni­ties to expe­ri­ence cog­ni­tive decline and and will require spe­cif­ic interventions. Huge med­ical advances over the last 100 years have enabled longevity, improved qual­i­ty of life over­all. But, they have focused more on how to main­tain “healthy bodies“ than on “healthy brains.“ Thanks to sci­en­tif­ic research, there is now more knowl­edge on the cog­ni­tive effects of a vari­ety of med­ica­tions  and con­di­tions, from atten­tion deficit disorders to chemother­a­py and beyond. Our mar­ket pro­jec­tions take into account these trends. 
In sum, we agree with Brooks: the Cog­ni­tive Age is here. And we add: new tools will help us be more healthy and pro­duc­tive, as we cov­er in our Mar­ket Report.
PS: I have cho­sen to ignore Mr. Brooks last sen­tence, since I fail to see the jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for his innu­en­do against Democ­rats. If any­thing, we’d need to com­pare respec­tive plat­forms on Iraq & military bud­get, health­care, edu­ca­tion, sci­ence, not just trade.

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6 Responses

  1. D Parker says:

    RE: Brooks’ last sen­tence. You must not live in one of the states “hit hard by NAFTA.”

    Watch the tape of Clin­ton and Oba­ma say­ing one thing about NAFTA to Ohioans and the oppo­site hours lat­er to Tex­ans. They rec­og­nize the NAFTA is geo­graph­i­cal­ly dis­crim­i­nat­ing, but they still blame the com­pa­nies and the coun­tries.

    In the next months, lis­ten to the empha­sis on what was done “to us” by those com­pa­nies that left for oth­er (Asian and Lati­no) coun­tries. It isn’t that our col­leges aren’t pro­duc­ing work­ers who can han­dle the cog­ni­tive demands of the Cog­ni­tive Age / New Econ­o­my. FYI: I am a uni­ver­si­ty instruc­tor and a Demo­c­rat from Ohio.

    And there is no “innu­en­do” in the sen­tence you object to — it is a fair­ly clear claim that the Democ­rats blame coun­tries. My argu­ment would be that all the nation­al pols who know where we are at elec­tion time make the same pitch­es. And none of them are around to increase fund­ing for K-16 edu­ca­tion — only high-risk test­ing.

  2. Alvaro says:

    Thank you for rais­ing some good points. Cer­tain­ly, there is much to object to in Democ­rats’ trade plat­forms.

    Now, my point is that Brooks’ attack on Democ­rats sim­ply dis­tracts, more than help­ing under­stand and deal with the sit­u­a­tion.

    It doesn’t fol­low from the rest of the arti­cle. And it doesn’t build on sol­id, com­pre­hen­sive analy­sis. It comes accross pret­ty ran­dom, per­haps reveal­ing more about his polit­i­cal lean­ings than his superb cog­ni­tive skills.

    The pub­lic pol­i­cy and polit­i­cal debate that should fol­low the claim that we live in a Cog­ni­tive Age should be cen­tered on what spe­cif­ic struc­tur­al poli­cies can­di­dates are advo­cat­ing, to pre­pare our pop­u­la­tion for that new envi­ron­ment: Iraq & mil­i­tary bud­get, health­care, edu­ca­tion, sci­ence, not just trade.

    For exam­ple, one could claim that the Repub­li­can Bush admin­is­tra­tion has been the most anti-sci­ence in recent his­to­ry, help­ing move the US back­wards in this Cog­ni­tive Age, and that Repub­li­can lead­ers, includ­ing their can­di­date, don’t seem to have reneged on that, hence. Is this more or less rel­e­vant than trade poli­cies?

  3. Jan_Naxon says:

    Inter­est­ing dia­logue about pol­i­tics and was a good brain exer­cise just to read and com­pre­hend!

  4. Alvaro says:

    Hel­lo Jan, glad you found it stim­u­lat­ing!

  5. Inter­est­ing dia­logue about pol­i­tics and cog­ni­tion too

  6. Nicholas Alexander G.P. says:

    Hel­lo every­one!
    I just want to state that our goal is to improve our­selves and if on the way we can make the ones we care about hap­py than we will be in par­adise.
    Nev­er­the­less no mat­ter what we are or what we turn out to be as long as are self­aware we have the right to choose.

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