Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

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Announcing Sponsors and Partners: 2011 SharpBrains Summit

We are hon­ored to announce the fol­low­ing Spon­sors and Part­ners of the upcom­ing 2011 Sharp­Brains Sum­mit: Retool­ing Brain Health for the 21st Cen­tu­ry (March 30th — April 1st, 2011). And we are look­ing for more, so please con­tact us if inter­est­ed! Read the rest of this entry »

News on physical, cognitive and emotional fitness

Brain Health NewsNice week­end read­ing mate­r­i­al — recent news reiforc­ing emerg­ing trends on phys­i­cal, cog­ni­tive and emo­tion­al fit­ness, but with new twists.

Fit teens could be smarter teens

Researchers from Swe­den and USC exam­ined data on 1.2 mil­lion Swedish men born between 1950 and 1976 who also enlist­ed for the coun­try’s manda­to­ry mil­i­tary ser­vice. They looked at the par­tic­i­pants’ glob­al intel­li­gence scores as well as log­i­cal, visu­ospa­tial, ver­bal and tech­ni­cal scores. The greater the car­dio­vas­cu­lar fit­ness, the high­er the cog­ni­tive scores at age 18. The asso­ci­a­tion between mus­cle strength and glob­al intel­li­gence, in con­trast, was weak.”

UPMC Health Plan Offers Brain Fit­ness Soft­ware to Improve Health

UPMC Health Plan announced today that it has signed an agree­ment to offer award-win­ning brain fit­ness soft­ware from Posit Sci­ence®, at no cost, to all UPMC for Life Medicare Advan­tage mem­bers. This brain train­ing pro­gram is a new part of the UPMC Health Plan well­ness ser­vices, which focus on both mind and body fit­ness.

The brain fit­ness soft­ware, known as the Insight™ Brain Fit­ness Pro­gram, is a suite of five game-like com­put­er exer­cis­es that make brain train­ing chal­leng­ing and effec­tive. The pro­gram engages the brain’s nat­ur­al plas­tic­i­ty (the brain’s abil­i­ty to rewire itself) to improve basic brain func­tion.”

Brain-fit­ness indus­try grows as baby-boomers work to stay sharp.

When we’re younger we’re learn­ing quite inten­sive­ly,” she said. “By mid­dle age, we’re not learn­ing inten­sive­ly any­more and just using skills we’ve already mas­tered. That’s why it’s impor­tant to stretch your brain.”

Brain fit­ness games also have the poten­tial to improve one’s emo­tion­al health, said Mark Bald­win, a psy­chol­o­gy pro­fes­sor at McGill Uni­ver­si­ty in Mon­tre­al.

Bald­win has devel­oped a num­ber of com­put­er games based on keep­ing a brain active phys­i­o­log­i­cal­ly, to improve it psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly.

It’s about prac­tis­ing or using games to train ben­e­fi­cial habits of thought, ” he said.

Does cognitive training work? (For Whom? For What?)

The grow­ing field of cog­ni­tive train­ing (one of the tools for brain fit­ness) can appear very con­fus­ing as the media keeps report­ing con­tra­dic­to­ry claims. These claims are often based on press releas­es, with­out a deep­er eval­u­a­tion of the sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence.

Let’s take a cou­ple of recent exam­ples, in suc­ces­sive days:

It does­n’t work!” type of head­line:
Reuters (Feb. 10, 2009)  For­mal brain exer­cise won’t help healthy seniors: research
Healthy old­er peo­ple should­n’t both­er spend­ing mon­ey on com­put­er games and web­sites promis­ing to ward off men­tal decline, the author of a review of sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence for the ben­e­fits of these “brain exer­cise” pro­grams says.

It works! type of head­line:
Sci­enceDai­ly (Feb. 11, 2009)  “Com­put­er Exer­cis­es Improve Mem­o­ry And Atten­tion, Study Sug­gests”
Accord­ing to the researchers, par­tic­i­pants who used the Brain Fit­ness Pro­gram also scored as well as those ten years younger, on aver­age, on mem­o­ry and atten­tion tests for which they did not train.

So, does struc­tured brain exer­cise / cog­ni­tive train­ing work or not?

The prob­lem may in fact reside in ask­ing this very ques­tion in the first place, as Alvaro point­ed out a while ago in his arti­cle Alzheimer’s Dis­ease: too seri­ous to play with head­lines.

We need a more nuanced set of ques­tions.

Why? Because:
1. Cog­ni­tion is made of sev­er­al dif­fer­ent abil­i­ties (work­ing mem­o­ry, atten­tion, exec­u­tive func­tions such as deci­sion-mak­ing, etc)
2. Avail­able train­ing pro­grams do not all train the same abil­i­ties
3. Users of train­ing pro­grams do not all have the same needs or goals
4. We need to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between enhanc­ing cog­ni­tive func­tions and delay­ing the onset of cog­ni­tive deficits such as Alzheimer’s.

Let’s illus­trate these points, by Read the rest of this entry »

Brain Training: It Works, and It Doesn’t Work

The IMPACT study which we report­ed on in Decem­ber 2007, fund­ed by Posit Sci­ence, con­duct­ed by the Mayo Clin­ic and USC Davis, has just announced pub­li­ca­tion at the Jour­nal of the Amer­i­can Geri­atrics Soci­ety. Ref­er­ence:

- Smith et al. A Cog­ni­tive Train­ing Pro­gram Designed Based on Prin­ci­ples of Brain Plas­tic­i­ty: Results from the Improve­ment in Mem­o­ry with Plas­tic­i­ty-based Adap­tive Cog­ni­tive Train­ing Study. Jour­nal of the Amer­i­can Geri­atrics Soci­ety, April 2009.

Com­put­er Exer­cis­es Improve Mem­o­ry And Atten­tion, Study Sug­gests (Sci­ence Dai­ly)

- “The Improve­ment in Mem­o­ry with Plas­tic­i­ty-based Adap­tive Cog­ni­tive Train­ing (IMPACT) study was fund­ed by the Posit Sci­ence Cor­po­ra­tion, which owns the rights to the Brain Fit­ness Pro­gram, test­ed in the study.”

- “Of the 487 healthy adults over the age of 65 who par­tic­i­pat­ed in a ran­dom­ized con­trolled tri­al, half used the Brain Fit­ness Pro­gram for 40 hours over the course of eight weeks. The Brain Fit­ness Pro­gram con­sists of six audio exer­cis­es done on a com­put­er, and is intend­ed to “retrain the brain to dis­crim­i­nate fine dis­tinc­tions in sound, and do it in a way that keeps the user engaged,” Zelin­s­ki explained.” The oth­er half of par­tic­i­pants spent an equal amount of time learn­ing from edu­ca­tion­al DVDs fol­lowed by quizzes.

Com­ment: this is a very inter­est­ing study, in that it shows both that cog­ni­tive train­ing works, and that it does­n’t work.

What do I mean? Read the rest of this entry »

Cognitive screenings and Alzheimer’s Disease

The Alzheimer’s Foun­da­tion of Amer­i­ca just released a thought­ful report advo­cat­ing for wide­spread cog­ni­tive screen­ings after the age of 65 (55 giv­en the right con­di­tions).

Accord­ing to the press release,

- “The report shat­ters unsub­stan­ti­at­ed crit­i­cism and instead empha­sizes the safe­ty and cost-effec­tive­ness of these tools and calls on Con­gress to devel­op a nation­al demen­tia screen­ing pol­i­cy.”

- “Lift­ing the bar­ri­ers to ear­ly detec­tion is long over­due, Hall said. “Con­ver­sa­tions about brain health are not tak­ing place. We must edu­cate and empow­er con­sumers to talk open­ly about mem­o­ry con­cerns, par­tic­u­lar­ly with pri­ma­ry care providers, so they get the atten­tion and qual­i­ty of life they deserve.

- “Demand for screen­ings is evi­denced by the suc­cess of AFA’s recent sixth annu­al Nation­al Mem­o­ry Screen­ing Day held on Novem­ber 18, dur­ing which an esti­mat­ed 50,000 peo­ple were giv­en free con­fi­den­tial mem­o­ry screen­ings at near­ly 2,200 com­mu­ni­ty sites nation­wide. Dur­ing last year’s event, approx­i­mate­ly 16 per­cent of indi­vid­u­als who had a face-to-face screen­ing scored pos­i­tive and were referred to their pri­ma­ry care providers for fol­low-up. An AFA sur­vey of par­tic­i­pants revealed that few­er than one in four with self-report­ed mem­o­ry com­plaints had pre­vi­ous­ly dis­cussed them with their physi­cians despite recent vis­its.”

Excel­lent report avail­able: here

Please note that the Alzheimer’s Asso­ci­a­tion recent­ly argued in the oppo­site direc­tion (no screen­ings) — which prob­a­bly trig­gered this response.

We see emerg­ing trends that sug­gest the posi­tion in favor of cog­ni­tive assess­ments may in fact gath­er momen­tum over the next few years: wide­spread com­put­er­ized cog­ni­tive screen­ings in the US Army, insur­ance com­pa­nies like OptumHealth adding such tools to its clin­i­cal deci­sion-mak­ing sys­tems, polls such as the Amer­i­can Soci­ety of Aging’s a cou­ple of years ago indi­cat­ing a very strong demand for an “annu­al men­tal check-up”, the avail­abil­i­ty of use­ful assess­ment tools and research-based pre­ven­tive advice.

The start­ing point is to under­stand what those assess­ments are NOT: they are not diag­nos­tic tools. When used prop­er­ly, they can be used as a base­line to track per­for­mance in a vari­ety of cog­ni­tive domains over time, so that both the indi­vid­ual AND the physi­cian are not blind­ed by a one-time assess­ment, com­par­ing an indi­vid­ual with his or her peers (instead of his or her past per­for­mance) when seri­ous symp­toms have fre­quent­ly already been going on for a while.

Our con­trib­u­tor  Dr. Joshua Sil­ver­man, from Albert Ein­stein Col­lege of Med­i­cine, recent­ly gen­er­at­ed a nice debate on the top­ic by ask­ing our read­ers their reac­tion to these 3 ques­tions: Read the rest of this entry »

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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