Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

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Q&A with Yaakov Stern on Brain Reserve, Exercise, Cognitive Training, Angry Birds, YMCA and more

I just had the chance to discuss latest neuroscientific research and thinking with Dr. Yaakov Stern, one of the leading scientists studying how to build a neuroprotective cognitive reserve across the lifespan. Dr. Stern leads the Cognitive Neuroscience Division at the Columbia University Sergievsky Cen­ter. What follows is a Q&A session conducted via email over the last week.

Alvaro Fernandez: What do you make of the recent study “Association of Lifetime Cognitive Engagement and Low ?-Amyloid Deposition“? 

Yaakov Stern: I find these results very intriguing. The concept of cognitive reserve posits that Read the rest of this entry »

Michael Merzenich on Brain Training, Assessments, and Personal Brain Trainers

Dr. Michael Merzenich Dr. Michael Merzenich, Emeritus Professor at UCSF, is a leading pioneer in brain plasticity research. In the late 1980s, Dr. Merzenich was on the team that invented the cochlear implant. In 1996, he was the founding CEO of Scientific Learning Corporation (Nasdaq: SCIL), and in 2004 became co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Posit Science. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1999 and to the Institute of Medicine this year. He retired as Francis A. Sooy Professor and Co-Director of the Keck Center for Integrative Neuroscience at the University of California at San Francisco in 2007. You may have learned about his work in one of PBS TV specials, multiple media appearances, or neuroplasticity-related books.

(Alvaro Fernandez) Dear Michael, thank you very much for agreeing to participate in the inaugural SharpBrains Virtual Summit in January, and for your time today. In order to contextualize the Summit’s main themes, I would like to focus this interview on the likely big-picture implications during the next 5 years of your work and that of other neuroplasticity research and industry pioneers.

Thank you for inviting me. I believe the SharpBrains Summit will be very useful and stimulating, you are gathering an impressive group together. I am looking forward to January.

Neuroplasticity-based Tools: The New Health & Wellness Frontier

There are many different technology-free approaches to harnessing/ enabling/ driving neuroplasticity. What is the value that technology brings to the cognitive health table?

It’s all about efficiency, scalability, personalization, and assured effectiveness. Technology supports the implementation of near-optimally-efficient brain-training strategies. Through the Internet, it enables the low-cost distribution of these new tools, anywhere out in the world. Technology also enables the personalization of brain health training, by providing simple ways to measure and address individual needs in each person’s brain-health training experience. It enables assessments of your abilities that can affirm that your own brain health issues have been effectively addressed.

Of course substantial gains could also be achieved by organizing your everyday activities that grow your neurological abilities and sustain your brain health. Still, if the ordinary citizen is to have any real chance of maintaining their brain fitness, they’re going to have to spend considerable time at the brain gym!

One especially important contribution of technology is the scalability that it provides for delivering brain fitness help out into the world. Think about how efficient the drug delivery system is today. Doctors prescribe drugs, insurance covers them, and there is a drug store in every neighborhood in almost every city in the world so that every patient has access to them. Once neuroplasticity-based tools and outcomes and standardized, we can envision a similar scenario. And we don’t need all those drug stores, because we have the Internet!

Having said this, there are obvious obstacles. One main one, in my mind, is the lack of understanding of what these new tools can do. Cognitive training programs, for example, seem counter-intuitive to consumers and many professionals “ why would one try to improve speed-of-processing if all one cares about is memory? A second obvious problem is to get individuals to buy into the effort required to really change their brains for the better. That buy-in has been achieved for many individuals as it applies to their physical health, but we haven’t gotten that far yet in educating the average older person that brain fitness training is an equally effortful business!

Tools for Safer Driving: Teens and Adults

Safe driving seems to be one area where the benefits are more intuitive, which may explain the significant traction.

Yes, we see great potential and interest among insurers for improving driving safety, both for seniors and teens. Appropriate cognitive training can lower at-fault accident rates. You can measure clear benefits in relatively short time frames, so it won’t take long for insurers to see an economic rationale to not only offer programs at low cost or for free but to incentivize drivers to complete them. Allstate, AAA, State Farm and other insurers are beginning to realize this potential. It is important to note that typical accidents among teens and seniors are different, so that training methodologies will need to be different for different high-risk populations.

Yet, most driving safety initiatives today still focus on educating drivers, rather that training them neurologically. We measure vision, for example, but completely ignore attentional control abilities, or a driver’s useful field of view. I expect this to change significantly over the next few years.

Long-term care and health insurance companies will ultimately see similar benefits, and we believe that they will follow a similar course of action to reduce general medical and neurodegenerative disease- (Mild Cognitive Impairment and Alzheimer’s- and Parkinsons-) related costs. In fact, many senior living communities are among the pioneers in this field.

Boomers & Beyond: Maintaining Cognitive Vitality

Mainstream media is covering this emerging category with thousands of stories. But most coverage seems still focused on does it work? more than “how do we define It”, what does work mean? or work for whom, and for what? Can you summarize what recent research suggests?

We have seen clear patterns in the application of our training programs, some published (like IMPACT), some unpublished, some with healthy adults, and some with people with mild cognitive impairment or early Alzheimers Disease (AD). What we see in every case: Read the rest of this entry »

Preparing Society for the Cognitive Age (Frontiers in Neuroscience article)

Frontiers in Neuroscience Augmenting Cognition(Editor’s note: this article belongs to the excellent May 2009 special issue on Augmenting Cognition at scientific journal Frontiers in Neuroscience. The article, an industry overview, is reproduced here with authorization by the Frontiers Research Foundation)

Preparing Society for the Cognitive Age

By Alvaro Fernandez

Groundbreaking cognitive neuroscience research has occurred over the last 20 years – without parallel growth of consumer awareness and appropriate professional dissemination. “Cognition” remains an elusive concept with unclear implications outside the research community.

Earlier this year, I presented a talk to health care professionals at the New York Academy of Medicine, titled “Brain Fitness Software: Helping Consumers Separate Hope from Hype”. I explained what computerized cognitive assessment and training tools can do (assess/enhance specific cognitive functions), what they cannot do (reduce one’s “brain age”) and the current uncertainties about what they can do (i.e., delay Alzheimer’s symptoms). At the same symposium, Dr. Gary Kennedy, Director of Geriatric Psychiatry at Montefiore Medical Center, provided guidance on why and how to screen for executive function deficits in the context of dementia.

I could perceive two emerging trends at the event: 1) “Augmenting Cognition” research is most commonly framed as a healthcare, often pharmacological topic, with the traditional cognitive bias in medicine of focusing on detection and treatment of disease, 2) In addition, there is a growing interest in non-invasive enhancement options and overall lifestyle issues. Research findings in Augmenting Cognition are only just beginning to reach the mainstream marketplace, mostly through healthcare channels. The opportunity is immense, but we will need to ensure the marketplace matures in a rational and sustainable manner, both through healthcare and non-healthcare channels.

In January 2009, we polled the 21,000 subscribers of SharpBrains’ market research eNewsletter to identify attitudes and behaviors towards the “brain fitness” field (a term we chose in 2006 based on a number of consumer surveys and focus groups to connect with a wider audience). Over 2,000 decision-makers and early adopters responded to the survey.

One of the key questions we asked was, “What is the most important problem you see in the brain fitness field and how do you think it can be solved?”. Some examples of the survey free text answers are quoted here, together with my suggestions.

Most important problems in the brain fitness field

Public awareness (39%): “To get people to understand that heredity alone does not decide brain functioning”. We need to ramp up efforts to build public awareness and enthusiasm about brain research, including establishing clear links to daily living. We can collaborate with initiatives such as the Dana Foundation’s Brain Awareness Week and use the recent “Neuroscience Core Concepts” materials developed by the Society for Neuroscience to give talks at schools, libraries and workplaces.

Claims (21%): “The lack of standards and clear definitions is very confusing, and Read the rest of this entry »

Can You Outsmart Your Genes? An Interview with Author Richard Nisbett

(Editor’s Note: interviewing Richard Nisbett, author of the excellent Intelligence and How to Get Itrecent book Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count, was in our To Do list. We then found that fellow blogger David DiSalvo was faster than we were and did a great job, so here we bring you David’s interview and take.)

While the debate over intelligence rages on many fronts, the battle over the importance of heredity rages loudest. It’s easy to see why. If the camp that argues intelligence is 75 to 85 percent genetically determined is correct, then we’re faced with some tough questions about the role of education. If intelligence is improved very little by schools, and if the IQ of the majority of the population will remain relatively unchanged no matter how well schools perform, then should school reform really be a priority?

More to the point, if our genes largely determine our IQ, which in turn underlies our performance throughout our lives, then what is the role of school? For some in this debate the answer to that question is simply, “to be the best you can be.” But that seems little comfort for those who aspire to “be” more than what their IQ category predicts they will.

Those on the other side of this debate question whether heredity plays as big a role as the strong hereditarians claim. And for the role it does play, they question whether hereditability implies immutability. Heredity of height, for example, is about 90 percent, and yet average height in several populations around the world has been steadily increasing due to non-genetic influences, like nutrition. If such a strong hereditary trait can be radically altered by environmental factors–and height is but one example of this–then why is intelligence different?

It is not, argues the camp that might best be described as intelligence optimists. For them, the pessimism that colors the strong hereditarian position isn’t only discouraging, it’s dangerous. Too much is hanging in the balance for pessimism about the potential of our children to prevail.

Richard NisbettRichard Nisbett is a champion of the intelligence optimist camp, and with his latest book, Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count , he has emerged as the most persuasive voice marshalling evidence to disprove the heredity-is-destiny argument. Intellectual advancement, Nisbett argues, is not the result of hardwired genetic codes, but the province of controllable factors like schools and social environments–and as such, improving these factors is crucially important. Read the rest of this entry »

Michael Merzenich: Brain Plasticity offers Hope for Everyone

“Whatever you struggle with in a sense as it stems from your neurology, the inherent plasticity of the brain gives you a basis for improvement. This is a way underutilized and under-appreciated resource that well all have.” Dr. Michael Merzenich on the Brain Science Podcast #54, 2/13/09.

Recently there has been growing controversy about the effectiveness of computer-based cognitive training programs. As a co-founder of Posit Science, Inc. Dr. Michael Merzenich is a staunch defender of the methods his company uses to validate the programs that they have developed. But for the purposes of this essay, I want to share some of the key ideas we discussed during his recent interview on the Brain Science Podcast.

First of all, I asked him to discuss some of the highlights of his long career. Since he was one of the first neuroscientists to embrace the concepts of neuroplasticity I was curious about how this came about. While he did have some exposure to the animal evidence as a graduate student, it was actually his experience with the invention of the cochlear implant that convinced Dr. Merzenich of the real-world, practical implications of brain plasticity. The quality of the Read the rest of this entry »

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