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)
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 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.