Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News



Stress symbolThese days, we all live under con­sid­er­able stress — eco­nomic chal­lenges, job demands, fam­ily ten­sions, always-on tech­nol­ogy and the 24-hour news cycle all con­tribute to cease­less wor­ry. While many have learned to sim­ply “live with it,” this ongo­ing stress can, unless prop­erly man­aged, have a seri­ous neg­a­tive impact on our abil­ity to think clear­ly and make good deci­sions, in the short-term, and may even harm our brains in the long-term.

Recent stud­ies show that chron­ic stress can also lead to depres­sion, and even to a high­er risk of cog­ni­tive decline and Alzheimer’s dis­ease symp­toms. Why? Under stress, the brain’s lim­bic sys­tem — respon­si­ble for emo­tions, mem­ory and learn­ing — trig­gers an alarm that acti­vates the fight-or-flight response, increas­ing the pro­duc­tion of adren­a­line and cor­ti­sol, which work togeth­er to speed heart rate, increase metab­o­lism and blood pres­sure, and low­er pain sen­si­tiv­ity — all good things when your very sur­vival is on the line. When the stress­ful sit­u­a­tion is over, the body should reset back to nor­mal.

How­ever, under sus­tained stress, the body is unable to reset. High adren­a­line and cor­ti­sol lev­els per­sist, poten­tially caus­ing blood pres­sure prob­lems, and block­ing the for­ma­tion of new neur­al con­nec­tions in the hip­pocam­pus, the part of the brain respon­si­ble for encod­ing new mem­o­ries. When these new con­nec­tions are blocked, the hip­pocam­pus can actu­ally shrink in size, hin­der­ing mem­o­ry…

What can you do?

Rather than sim­ply liv­ing with stress, learn­ing how to effec­tively mas­ter our stress lev­els and build emo­tional resilience can not only help you feel and per­form bet­ter on a dai­ly basis, but also pro­tect your brain from the long-term dam­ag­ing effects of stress. Here’s how to do it: Keep read­ing excerpt on “6 tips to build resilience and pre­vent brain-dam­ag­ing stress.”

brain exerciseHow is brain train­ing dif­fer­ent from men­tal stim­u­la­tion?

Any­thing we do involv­ing nov­elty, vari­ety, and chal­lenge stim­u­lates the brain and can con­tribute to build­ing capac­ity and brain reserve. For instance, learn­ing how to play the piano acti­vates a num­ber of brain func­tions (atten­tion, mem­ory, motor skills, etc.), which trig­gers changes in the under­ly­ing neu­ronal net­works. Indeed, musi­cians have larg­er brain vol­ume in areas that are impor­tant for play­ing an instru­ment: motor, audi­tory and visu­ospa­tial regions. How­ever, we need to rec­og­nize that such an activ­ity may take thou­sands of hours before pay­ing off in terms of brain fit­ness. It con­sti­tutes a great and plea­sur­able men­tal effort, and helps build cog­ni­tive reserve, but it is dif­fer­ent by nature from more tar­geted, effi­cient, and com­ple­men­tary brain train­ing inter­ven­tions. To take an anal­ogy from the world of phys­i­cal fit­ness, it makes sense to stay fit by play­ing pick­up soc­cer games and also by train­ing spe­cific mus­cle groups and capac­i­ties such as car­dio endurance, abdom­i­nal mus­cles, and thigh mus­cle. It is not one or the oth­er.

Under what con­di­tions can brain train­ing work?

This is the mil­lion dol­lar ques­tion. Evi­dence is grow­ing that brain train­ing can work. The ques­tion remains, how­ever, how to max­i­mize the like­li­hood of trans­fer from train­ing to dai­ly life.

Why do we still often hear that brain train­ing does not work? Because of the dif­fer­ent under­stand­ings of what “brain train­ing” and “work” mean. A machine to train abdom­i­nal mus­cles prob­a­bly won’t “work” if what we mea­sure is blood pres­sure. A “plane” won’t fly if it wasn’t a plane to start with, but a don­key.

The most crit­i­cal fac­tor in deter­min­ing whether a brain train­ing method or pro­gram works is the extent to which the train­ing effects “trans­fer” to ben­e­fits in dai­ly life. We know from com­mon expe­ri­ence that prac­tice usu­ally trig­gers improve­ment in the prac­ticed task. Based on our analy­sis of doc­u­mented exam­ples of brain train­ing tech­niques that “work” or “trans­fer,” we pro­pose that these five con­di­tions must be met for any kind of brain train­ing, from med­i­ta­tion to tech­nol­o­gy-based pro­grams, to trans­late into mean­ing­ful real world improve­ments: Keep read­ing excerpt on “Does brain train­ing work? Yes, if it meets these five con­di­tions.”