Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

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Maintain Your Brain and Stay Sharp: An Upcoming Guide and Resource

You may be read­ing all about brain fit­ness and brain train­ing. It seems every week brings a new bar­rage of arti­cles and stud­ies which often con­tra­dict what you read the month before: Does Gingko Bilo­ba help delay Alzheimer’s Dis­ease? Can phys­i­cal exer­cise help you stay sharp as you age? Which com­put­er-based “brain fit­ness pro­grams”, if any, are worth your mon­ey?

All this cov­er­age reflects very excit­ing sci­en­tif­ic find­ings but also pos­es a key dilem­ma: How to become an informed life­long learn­er and con­sumer when there are few and con­tra­dic­to­ry author­i­ta­tive guide­lines?

The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness (to be pub­lished in May 2009; $24.95) aims to fill that void. This guide is the result of over a year of exten­sive research includ­ing more than a hun­dred inter­views with sci­en­tists, pro­fes­sion­als and con­sumers, and a deep lit­er­a­ture review. Below you have some of the main find­ings from our effort. The guide not only cov­ers these aspects in more depth and offers prac­ti­cal guid­ance, but also includes 18 inter­views with promi­nent sci­en­tists to help you under­stand the research bet­ter.

Can we intro­duce you to your Brain?

The Guide will start at the obvi­ous start­ing point: The Human Brain. In order to make informed deci­sions about brain health, one needs to first under­stand the basic orga­ni­za­tion of the human brain and how it tends to change as we get old­er.

* The brain is com­posed of a num­ber of regions serv­ing dis­tinct func­tions. For­get IQ: our life and pro­duc­tiv­i­ty depend on a vari­ety of brain func­tions, not just one.

* There is noth­ing inher­ent­ly fixed in the tra­jec­to­ry of how brain func­tions evolve as we age. Your lifestyle, actions, and even thoughts, do mat­ter.

The 4 Pil­lars of Brain Main­te­nance

Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty is the life­long capac­i­ty of the brain to change and rewire itself in response to the stim­u­la­tion of learn­ing and expe­ri­ence. The lat­est sci­en­tif­ic research shows that spe­cif­ic lifestyles and actions can, no mat­ter our age, improve the health and lev­el of func­tion­ing of our brains.

What fac­tors seem to have the most influ­ence? As described in the sec­ond chap­ter of the Guide, a brain-friend­ly lifestyle should include at least:
* Bal­anced nutri­tion: As a gen­er­al guide­line, what is good for the body and heart is also good for the brain. Gingko Bilo­ba and oth­er sup­ple­ments do not seem to bring the ben­e­fits peo­ple expect.
* Stress man­age­ment: Chron­ic stress reduces and can even inhib­it neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis (the cre­ation of new neu­rons) and affects mem­o­ry and oth­er brain func­tions. It is then very impor­tant to learn how to man­age stress.
* Phys­i­cal exer­cise: Phys­i­cal exer­cise improves cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing through increased blood sup­ply and growth hor­mone lev­els in the brain. Of all the types of phys­i­cal exer­cise, car­dio­vas­cu­lar exer­cise that get the heart beat­ing has been shown to have the great­est effect.
* Brain exer­cise: Brain exer­cise strength­ens the synaps­es or con­nec­tions between neu­rons, thus improv­ing neu­ron sur­vival and cog­ni­tive func­tion­ing. Cumu­lat­ed men­tal stim­u­la­tion through­out our lives (via edu­ca­tion, our jobs, leisure activ­i­ties) can help build a neu­ro­pro­tec­tive Cog­ni­tive Reserve.

Men­tal Exer­cise vs. Men­tal Activ­i­ty

The third chap­ter of the Guide shows why men­tal exer­cise goes beyond men­tal activ­i­ty. We define Men­tal Exer­cise (or “Brain train­ing”) as the struc­tured use of cog­ni­tive exer­cis­es or tech­niques aimed at improv­ing spe­cif­ic brain func­tions.

Brain train­ing can be deliv­ered in a num­ber of ways:
* Cog­ni­tive ther­a­py (CT): the way we per­ceive our expe­ri­ences influ­ences our behav­iors, and one can learn cog­ni­tive skills to mod­i­fy his or her think­ing and result­ing actions. CT has been around for decades, but there is more recent research show­ing the spe­cif­ic brain ben­e­fits from the tech­nique.
* Med­i­ta­tion: has been shown to improve spe­cif­ic cog­ni­tive func­tions such as atten­tion and emo­tion­al self-reg­u­la­tion.
* Biofeed­back: these devices can mea­sure and graph­i­cal­ly dis­play var­i­ous phys­i­o­log­i­cal vari­ables such as heart rate vari­abil­i­ty, so that users can learn to self-adjust and iden­ti­fy and man­age emo­tions bet­ter.
* Brain Fit­ness Soft­ware: these are ful­ly auto­mat­ed appli­ca­tions designed to assess and enhance spe­cif­ic cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties. This is the area that has explod­ed since 2007 – and where we observe the most con­fu­sion.

The Val­ue and Lim­i­ta­tions of Brain Train­ing Soft­ware

Do brain train­ing soft­ware prod­ucts real­ly “work”? Well, it depends on which prod­uct, and for whom and for what. To help answer­ing this ques­tion, Chap­ter 4 of the Guide will offer a detailed and easy to read review of the recent sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence.

Some key con­cepts to help you nav­i­gate the exist­ing and future prod­ucts are that:
* Dif­fer­ent peo­ple face dif­fer­ent cog­ni­tive demands, and have dif­fer­ent start­ing points, so there is no gen­er­al solu­tion or mag­ic pill for every­one and every­thing.
* As in phys­i­cal fit­ness, you must ask your­self: What are the goals I want to accom­plish? What spe­cif­ic cog­ni­tive func­tions am I try­ing to improve on? In what time­frame? What bud­get can I spend on this?

The Guide includes 10 ques­tions to help con­sumers eval­u­ate soft­ware pro­grams, and offers a detailed overview (includ­ing tar­get­ed brain func­tions, tar­get­ed users, pric­ing, sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence) of the:

* Top 8 over­all brain main­te­nance prod­ucts.
* Top 8 tar­get­ed brain work­out prod­ucts.
* Top 5 stress man­age­ment prod­ucts.

Ready for the Future?

Chap­ter 5 and 6 of the Guide describe impor­tant trends to get you ready for what is com­ing.

The same way there are dif­fer­ent rea­sons to exer­cise our bod­ies (to run a marathon, to stay func­tion­al­ly fit, to lose weight…), there are dif­fer­ent rea­sons to exer­cise our brains. Accord­ing­ly, we are see­ing a grow­ing focus on men­tal exer­cise in a vari­ety of domains: healthy aging, seniors hous­ing, reha­bil­i­ta­tion from brain dis­or­ders (such as ADHD and strokes/ Trau­mat­ic Brain Injury), schools, etc.

We pre­dict the Cul­ture of Brain fit­ness to go main­stream with broad gov­ern­ment ini­tia­tives and a bet­ter inte­gra­tion of phys­i­cal and men­tal exer­cise. Bet­ter tools to assess cog­ni­tive func­tions and to improve brain func­tions are under way. More actors will take brain fit­ness into con­sid­er­a­tion — think of physi­cians, psy­chol­o­gists, insur­ance com­pa­nies, Cor­po­rate Amer­i­ca.

Open­ing the Debate

We are aware that the Guide may pro­vide many answers…but also many new ques­tions, which is good to help you eval­u­ate options, and also to get your own brain work­ing!

The Guide ends with a chal­lenge to read­ers: Can you, the ambas­sadors of brain fit­ness and life­long learn­ing, dis­cuss these find­ings and some pro­posed ques­tions with your friends, fam­i­lies, col­leagues, book club mem­bers?

Please stay tuned to be among the first to know when the guide will be released. If you haven’t by now, please make sure to sub­scribe to our free month­ly Newslet­ter.

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5 Responses

  1. Mike Logan says:

    Please, can I order now? Sounds very excit­ing. Mike

  2. vrud says:

    Do you plan to sell a dig­i­tal copy? Is it ready?

  3. Mike: it will be avail­able late May…you have to wait just a few weeks!

    Vrud: we will offer both a hard­copy and a Kin­dle ver­sion.

  4. Mrs.Nirmala Parameswaran says:

    Interested..could I know how to pur­chase the same and what the cost of the book could be?
    regards,
    NIMMI.

  5. Kaye says:

    Hi, I came to vis­it for the Boomers & Seniors Blog Car­ni­val. Inter­est­ing arti­cle. I was very pleased to see the excel­lent val­ue med­i­ta­tion pro­vides. As a Chris­t­ian com­mit­ted to prayer and med­i­tat­ing on God’s Word I was hap­py to know it’s excel­lent ben­e­fits include phys­i­cal as well as spir­i­tu­al ben­e­fits 🙂

    The Brain Exer­cise sec­tion looks great too. I enjoy exer­cis­ing my brain dai­ly, both by help­ing my grand­kids in their learn­ing, and by work­ing on my web­sites 🙂

    Very encour­ag­ing all around!

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