Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


Cognitive Health News: August 2008

Here you have a roundup of interesting recent news on cognitive health topics and my commentary:

1) Playing Video Games Offers Learning Across Life Span, Say Studies

2) Mental Floss at Military Officer Magazine

3) Brain Training dominates ’08 Euro sales (CVG Online)

4) Dakim’s [m]Power Adopted by 150 Senior Living Communities … (Business Wire)

5) Clumsy kids more likely to become obese adults: study (CBC)

1) There were a few interesting research papers presented at the last  American Psychological Association conventions around the theme:

Playing Video Games Offers Learning Across Life Span, Say Studies
–Skills Transfer to Classroom, Surgical Procedures, Scientific Thinking (press release).

Probably the most interesting study was that of 303 laparoscopic surgeons, which “showed that surgeons who played video games requiring spatial skills and hand dexterity and then performed a drill testing these skills were significantly faster at their first attempt and across all 10 trials than the surgeons who did not the play video games first.”

The note goes further to explain the implications from this research:

“The big picture is that there are several dimensions on which games have effects, including the amount they are played, the content of each game, what you have to pay attention to on the screen, and how you control the motions,” said Gentile. “This means that games are not “good’ or bad,’ but are powerful educational tools and have many effects we might not have expected they could.”

Very thoughtful quote. Please note a few elements about the study and the quote itself:

– “video games requiring spatial skills and hand dexterity”: meaning, that precise type of videogame. Other types may have other effects on cognition, depending on, as the note says, “the content of each game”, defining content as what players need to do in order to succeed at the game.
– “laparoscopic surgeons”: it is clear that these are important skills for a surgeon and not so important, say, for an economist. Perhaps more economists should be playing Age of Empires?

–  “are powerful educational tools”: yes, and in fact that is the premise of the Serious Games field, but there also an unspoken factor here: efficiency. If the main goal is entertainment, then the more hours of fun, the better. If the goal is a functional outcome (cognitive or real-life), then one would want the intervention that works in the least amount of time. In other words, could a videogame be specifically designed for laparoscopic surgeons to improve the cognitive skills they need most for their jobs, and would that be more efficient than spending X amount of hours playing a variety of general games? Probably, as you can explore in this interview with Prof. Daniel Gopher on cognitive simulations.

2) Good article on the August edition of Military Officer magazine:

Mental Floss (August 2008) (link opens a PDF-life document, you can read the text by Zooming In).

My 2 favorite quotes, both by Dr. Molly Wagster, chief of the Neuropsychology of Aging Branch, National Institute on Aging (NIA) in Bethesda, Md:

– “Certainly as we age there are declines with brain functions and cognition. But there’s evidence that the aging brain can adapt and change more than we ever thought”.

– “We don’t know how it happens or how long changes last, but even in the face of these unanswered questions, there is the chance to maintain our cognitive function”.

Comment: who among us won’t be tomorrow one day older than he/she is today? The good news about the “aging brain” doesn’t only refer to adults over 70!

3) Brain Training dominates ’08 Euro sales (CVG Online)

– “Overall, four of the ten bestselling DS games in both countries during the first six months of 2008 were in the brain training genre.”

– “According to data released by sales monitor Media Control GfK International, the DS’s heavyweight status in the European console market is closely tied to the popularity of Nintendo’s Brain Training series and other brain training titles.”

– “The biggest demand for brain games is in Germany and Holland”, the company said. More Brain Training was the bestselling title in Germany during the first six months of the year, while Brain Training topped the Dutch chart during the same period.

Comment: Fascinating. Will brain-training-induced employee-productivity-increase help turn around the looming recession? we’ll track closely the performance of German and Dutch economies!

4) Dakim’s [m]Power Adopted by 150 Senior Living Communities (Business Wire)

– “Dakim Inc. announced today that its [m]Power® Cognitive Fitness System has now been adopted by more than 150 senior living communities”

– “Users include Sunrise Senior Living, Front Porch Communities, Diakon Lutheran Services, Ecumen, Eskaton, Benchmark Assisted Living, and Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging. Several neurologists and a local Alzheimers Association chapter office have also purchased the system.”

– “Other products are static. You buy a CD, put it in the computer, and thats it. People get bored and stop using them. Dakim has found a way to keep people coming back to challenge their ability, and thats what our residents are doing. (said said Douglas Edwards, Director of Fund Development for Westminster Gardens in Duarte, California, part of the Southern California Presbyterian Homes)

Comment: senior living is one of the obvious areas where computerized cognitive training (or “brain fitness programs”) has a brighter future to complement and enhance existing health and wellness programs in scalable ways, as we covered in our Market Report. We are no longer surprised by the weekly press releases announcing a new “brain fitness center” in community XYZ. Now, what I find interesting is that last quote by Douglas Edwards, which I interpret as a direct commentary on the Posit Science Brain Fitness program, the other leading vendor for the senior living communities market.

5) The article Clumsy kids more likely to become obese adults: study (CBC)…

– “The study was based on tests of about 11,000 people in Britain who were tested for hand control, co-ordination and clumsiness at age seven and 11, and were then followed until age 33.”

– “Prof. Scott Montgomery of the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm and his colleagues at Imperial College London in England said they purposely chose measurements of fine hand control such as picking up matches, rather than those likely to be influenced by participating in sports, such as catching balls.”

– “While it is often assumed that the cognitive impairments seen in adult obesity are a consequence of excess weight, that could be putting the chicken before the egg, the researchers say”

…reminds me of Judith Beck’s words on how to “Train Your Brain to Think Like a Thin Person”

– “The main message of cognitive therapy overall, and its application in the diet world, is straight-forward: problems losing weight are not ones fault. Problems simply reflect lack of skills–skills that can be acquired and mastered through practice. Dieters who read the book or workbook learn a new cognitive or behavioral skill every day for six weeks. They practice some skills just once; they automatically incorporate others for their lifetime.”

– “That is exactly my goal: to show how everyone can learn some critical skills. The key ones are:”

– “1) How to motivate oneself. The first task that dieters do is to write a list of the 15 of 20 reasons why they want to lose weight and read that list every single day.”

– “2) Plan in advance and self-monitor behavior. A typical reason for diet failure is a strong preference for spontaneity. I ask people to prepare a plan and then I teach them the skills to stick to it.”

– “3) Overcome sabotaging thoughts. Dieters have hundreds and hundreds of thoughts that lead them to engage in unhelpful eating behavior. I have dieters read cards that remind them of key points, e.g., that it isn’t worth the few moments of pleasure they’ll get from eating something they hadn’t planned and that they’ll feel badly afterwards; that they can’t eat whatever they want, whenever they want, in whatever quantity they want, and still be thinner; that the scale is not supposed to go down every single day; that they deserve credit for each helpful eating behavior they engage in, to name just a few.”

– “4) Tolerate hunger and craving. Overweight people often confuse the two. You experience hunger when your stomach feels empty. Craving is an urge to eat, usually experienced in the mouth or throat, even if your stomach is full.”

Comment: A problem like the obesity epidemic is, no doubt, a result of many factors, where chicken and egg are often mixed. What matters, though, is how to set up public health policies and specific plans that take into account the Cognitive dimension: if adults cannot regulate their own eating and exercise habits, half the battle is lost. And we know that, up to a point, self-regulation skills are learnable and trainable.

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