Cognitive Health News Roundup

July is shap­ing up to be a fas­ci­nat­ing month, full of cog­ni­tive health research reports and appli­ca­tions. Here you have a roundup, cov­er­ing food for the brain, cog­ni­tive assess­ments, men­tal train­ing and DNA, and more.

1) Brain foods: the effects of nutri­ents on brain func­tion (Nature Neuroscience)

“Brain foods: the effects of nutri­ents on brain func­tion”, by Fer­nan­do Gmez-Pinilla.


It has long been sus­pect­ed that the rel­a­tive abun­dance of spe­cif­ic nutri­ents can affect cog­ni­tive process­es and emo­tions. New­ly described influ­ences of dietary fac­tors on neu­ronal func­tion and synap­tic plas­tic­i­ty have revealed some of the vital mech­a­nisms that are respon­si­ble for the action of diet on brain health and men­tal func­tion. Sev­er­al gut hor­mones that can enter the brain, or that are pro­duced in the brain itself, influ­ence cog­ni­tive abil­i­ty. In addi­tion, well-estab­lished reg­u­la­tors of synap­tic plas­tic­i­ty, such as brain-derived neu­rotroph­ic fac­tor, can func­tion as meta­bol­ic mod­u­la­tors, respond­ing to periph­er­al sig­nals such as food intake. Under­stand­ing the mol­e­c­u­lar basis of the effects of food on cog­ni­tion will help us to deter­mine how best to manip­u­late diet in order to increase the resis­tance of neu­rons to insults and pro­mote men­tal fitness.

The arti­cle itself is avail­able only to sub­scribers, but you can check this excel­lent fig­ures and tables:

2) U.S. Troops To Get Cog­ni­tive Screen­ing (Hart­ford Courant)

- The mil­i­tary will begin giv­ing cog­ni­tive tests this sum­mer to troops head­ing to war, in an effort to get a base­line mea­sure of their reac­tion time, mem­o­ry, con­cen­tra­tion and oth­er brain func­tions, which could be ref­er­enced in case they are injured.
— Assis­tant Defense Sec­re­tary S. Ward Cass­cells recent­ly direct­ed mil­i­tary lead­ers to begin pre-deploy­ment screen­ing of troops by late-July, using a com­put­er-based test known as the Auto­mat­ed Neu­ropsy­cho­log­i­cal Assess­ment Met­rics, or ANAM, a Depart­ment of Defense spokes­woman con­firmed in writ­ten respons­es to The Courant.

- The test­ing, which takes about 15 to 20 min­utes, will “allow for greater lev­els of accu­ra­cy when mak­ing assess­ments fol­low­ing injury,” said the spokes­woman, Cyn­thia Smith.
— Smith said the new test­ing is not intend­ed as a diag­nos­tic tool for mild trau­mat­ic brain injury, but instead would enable clin­i­cians “to com­pare a per­son to their own ‘norms’ or base­line scores” in the event of an injury.

3) Atten­tion class (The Boston Globe)
Pay­ing atten­tion is a more impor­tant skill than you might think — and new evi­dence sug­gests it can be taught

- It is not yet known how long these gains last, or what the best meth­ods for devel­op­ing atten­tion may turn out to be. But the demand is clear: Dozens of schools nation­wide are already incor­po­rat­ing some kind of atten­tion train­ing into their cur­ricu­lum. And as this new are­na of research helps over­turn long-stand­ing assump­tions about the mal­leabil­i­ty of this essen­tial human fac­ul­ty, it offers intrigu­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties for a world of overload.

- “If you have good atten­tion­al con­trol, you can do more than just pay atten­tion to some­one speak­ing at a lec­ture, you can con­trol your cog­ni­tive process­es, con­trol your emo­tions, bet­ter artic­u­late your actions,” says Amir Raz, a cog­ni­tive neu­ro­sci­en­tist at McGill Uni­ver­si­ty who is a lead­ing atten­tion researcher. “You can enjoy and gain an edge in life.”

- After years of research into how atten­tion net­works devel­op, Pos­ner and col­league Mary K. Roth­bart began exper­i­ment­ing a few years ago with train­ing chil­dren’s atten­tion. They tar­get­ed chil­dren 6 and under, since exec­u­tive atten­tion devel­ops rapid­ly between ages 4 and 7. Inspired by com­put­er-learn­ing work with mon­keys, Pos­ner and Roth­bart cre­at­ed a five-day com­put­er-based pro­gram to strength­en exec­u­tive atten­tion skills such as work­ing mem­o­ry, self-con­trol, plan­ning, and observation.

- “We should think of this work not just as reme­di­a­tion, but as a nor­mal part of edu­ca­tion,” Pos­ner said in an address to the Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion in 2003, when he pre­sent­ed pre­lim­i­nary findings.

4) Train Your Mind, Change Your DNA (Newsweek)

- Read­ing what genes a per­son has is so 20th cen­tu­ry. Deter­min­ing which genes are turned on is where the action is. A rat study I’ve men­tioned before, for instance, showed in 2004 that the way a moth­er rat treats her pups deter­mines whether genes relat­ed to neu­roti­cism and fear­ful­ness are on or off. Now comes a study that looks at some­thing sim­i­lar in people.

- As they report in PLoS One this evening, the relax­ation response alters which genes asso­ci­at­ed with the body’s response to stress are on and which are off. As Ben­son said in a state­ment, “we’ve found how chang­ing the activ­i­ty of the mind can alter the way basic genet­ic instruc­tions are implemented.

- It’s being billed as “the first com­pre­hen­sive study of how the mind can affect gene expres­sion.  “mind,” they mean men­tal prac­tices such as med­i­ta­tion and prayer, which are among the tech­niques used by the 19 long-term prac­ti­tion­ers of the relax­ation response who were stud­ied, along with 19 vol­un­teers who had nev­er engaged in such practices.

- It real­ly is time to stop think­ing of our DNA as immutable. Even think­ing can change it.

5) Train Your Mind, Kick Your Crav­ing (Newsweek)

- Can you think your way out of addic­tion? Maybe not yet, but the lat­est results from the bur­geon­ing field of research that exam­ines how men­tal train­ing can alter the brain and there­fore behav­ior say the rest of the answer may be “but prob­a­bly soon.”

- Back in the 1980s, a pio­neer in this field, Jef­frey Schwartz of UCLA, taught patients with obses­sive-com­pul­sive dis­or­der to think about their urge to check the stove or count cracks in the side­walk, or what­ev­er form their OCD took, in a new way. Specif­i­cal­ly, instead of accept­ing the obses­sive thought (“Oh, no, I left the stove on when I left the house this morn­ing!”) as accu­rate, they learned to regard it as just a brain glitch due to over-activ­i­ty in the ante­ri­or cin­gu­late (the “wor­ry circuit”).

- Since then, neu­ro­sci­en­tists have been find­ing more and more con­di­tions in which peo­ple can think them­selves out of some­thing. In depres­sion, for instance, think­ing about things dif­fer­ent­ly, which is what cog­ni­tive behav­ior ther­a­py (CBT) teach­es patients to do can lift depres­sion and reduce the rate of relapse.

- A new ques­tion­naire may help in both diag­nos­ing old­er adults fac­ing demen­tia and also in iden­ti­fy­ing indi­vid­u­als who need help with dai­ly living.

- “What’s nice about this is that it is designed to pick up very ear­ly mem­o­ry prob­lems, and it’s an entire­ly care­giv­er-based sur­vey,” said Dr. Scott Turn­er, incom­ing direc­tor of the Mem­o­ry Dis­or­ders Pro­gram at George­town Uni­ver­si­ty Med­ical Cen­ter, in Wash­ing­ton, D.C. “This is some­thing the care­giv­er can fill out, while the prac­ti­tion­er is look­ing at the patient. It could be used for screen­ing, for diag­no­sis and for drug devel­op­ment, if you want to look for some proof that your drug is hav­ing some effect, so it has a lot of poten­tial uses.”

- Farias and her col­leagues divid­ed every­day func­tion­ing into sev­en cog­ni­tive “domains:” mem­o­ry, lan­guage, seman­tic or fac­tu­al knowl­edge, visu­al and spa­tial abil­i­ties, plan­ning, orga­ni­za­tion and divid­ed attention.


  1. David Miller on July 13, 2008 at 7:58

    I was so hap­py to find this post and this site. So much empha­sis is placed on phys­i­cal fit­ness these days, that peo­ple often neglect their men­tal health and well­ness. Thank you for bring­ing it to the light.

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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