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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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters and more, SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking health and performance applications of brain science.

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