Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


From Scientific Learning to Dakim

Two inter­est­ing com­pa­ny press releas­es, one yes­ter­day one today, show­ing how cog­ni­tive inter­ven­tions may be help­ful no mat­ter our age, from kids to seniors, as long as we under­stand what those “tools” are sup­posed to do and don’t expect, or are promised, mir­a­cles:

Dakim® , Inc. Secures $10.6 Mil­lion Series C Fund­ing Led by Galen Part­ners

- “an inno­va­tor in brain fit­ness tech­nol­o­gy solu­tions, today announced Read the rest of this entry »

Brain Training: No Magic Bullet, Yet Useful Tool. Interview with Elizabeth Zelinski

Sharon Beg­ley, Newsweek’s sci­ence reporter, recent­ly wrote that

- “With the nation’s 78 mil­lion baby boomers approach­ing the age of those dread­ed ‘“where did I leave my keys?” moments, it’s no won­der the mar­ket for com­put­er-based brain train­ing has shot up from essen­tial­ly zero in 2005 to $80 mil­lion this year, accord­ing to the con­sult­ing firm Sharp­Brains.

- “Now comes the largest and most rig­or­ous study of a com­mer­cial­ly-avail­able train­ing pro­gram, and it shows that there is hope for aging brains. This morn­ing, at the meet­ing of the Geron­to­log­i­cal Soci­ety of Amer­i­ca, sci­en­tists are pre­sent­ing data show­ing that after eight weeks of dai­ly one-hour ses­sions with Brain Fit­ness 2.0 from Posit Sci­ence, elder­ly vol­un­teers got mea­sur­ably bet­ter in their brain’s speed and accu­ra­cy of processElizabeth Zelinski IMPACTing.

We recent­ly had the chance to inter­view Dr. Eliz­a­beth Zelin­s­ki of the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia Andrus Geron­tol­ogy Cen­ter, who led the IMPACT (Improve­ment in Mem­o­ry with Plas­tic­i­ty-based Adap­tive Cog­ni­tive Train­ing) Study Sharon Beg­ley refers to in the quote above.

First, some con­text on this study, which is by far the largest high-qual­i­ty study of its kind. The study was prospec­tive, ran­dom­ized, con­trolled, and used a dou­ble blind tri­al. 524 healthy adults 65-year-old and over were divid­ed into two groups. One received an hour a day of train­ing for eight to ten weeks, and the oth­er spent the same amount of time watch­ing edu­ca­tion­al DVDs. The IMPACT study, fund­ed by Posit Sci­ence cor­po­ra­tion, was per­formed in mul­ti­ple loca­tions, includ­ing the Mayo Clin­ic, USCF, and San Fran­cis­co Vet­er­an Affairs Med­ical Cen­ter.

The dis­cus­sion cen­ters at his point on the ini­tial results that were pre­sent­ed Geron­to­log­i­cal Soci­ety of Amer­i­ca (the study hasn’t been pub­lished yet).

Alvaro Fer­nan­dez: Dr. Zelin­s­ki. Thank you for being with us. Could you start by set­ting the con­text and pro­vid­ing an overview of how human cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties typ­i­cal­ly evolve as we age based on insights from your Long Beach Lon­gi­tu­di­nal Study?

Eliz­a­beth Zelin­s­ki: Of course. The first con­cept to under­stand is that dif­fer­ent cog­ni­tive skills evolve over the lifes­pan in dif­fer­ent ways. Some that rely on expe­ri­ence, such as vocab­u­lary, actu­al­ly improve as we age. Some tend to decline grad­u­al­ly, start­ing in our late 20s. This hap­pens, for exam­ple, with pro­cess­ing speed (how long it takes us to process and respond to infor­ma­tion), mem­o­ry, and rea­son­ing. We could sum­ma­rize this phe­nom­e­non by say­ing that as we age we get bet­ter at deal­ing with the famil­iar, but worse at deal­ing with the new. We can always learn, but at a slow­er pace.

Are there any spe­cif­ic tip­ping or inflec­tion points in this trend, any age when the rate of decline is more pro­nounced?

We don’t have a clear answer to that. It depends a lot on the indi­vid­ual. In gen­er­al it is a grad­ual, cumu­la­tive process, so that by age 70 we sta­tis­ti­cal­ly see clear age declines. Which, for exam­ple, is a strong fac­tor deter­min­ing why old­er adults strug­gle to adapt to new tech­nolo­gies, but why try­ing to learn them pro­vides need­ed men­tal stim­u­la­tion. Now we know that genes only account for a por­tion of this decline. Much of it depends on our envi­ron­ment, lifestyle and actions.

Can you sum­ma­rize what a healthy indi­vid­ual can do to slow down this process of decline, and help stay healthy and pro­duc­tive as long as pos­si­ble?

One gen­er­al rec­om­men­da­tion is to do every­thing we can to pre­vent or delay dis­ease process­es, such as dia­betes or high-blood pres­sure, that have a neg­a­tive effect on our brains. For exam­ple, it is a tragedy in our soci­ety that we usu­al­ly reduce our lev­els of phys­i­cal exer­cise dras­ti­cal­ly after we leave school.

Let me then ask: what are the rel­a­tive virtues of phys­i­cal vs. men­tal exer­cise?

Great ques­tion! That in fact leads into my sec­ond rec­om­men­da­tion. Aer­o­bic exer­cise has been shown to Read the rest of this entry »

Brain Coach Answers: How can I improve my short term memory? Is there a daily exercise I can do to improve it?

Q: How can I improve my mem­o­ry? Is there a dai­ly exer­cise I can do to improve it?

A: The most impor­tant com­po­nent of mem­o­ry is atten­tion. By choos­ing to attend to some­thing and focus on it, you cre­ate a per­son­al inter­ac­tion with it, which gives it per­son­al mean­ing, mak­ing it eas­i­er to remem­ber.

Elab­o­ra­tion and rep­e­ti­tion are the most com­mon ways of cre­at­ing that per­son­al inter­ac­tion. Elab­o­ra­tion involves cre­at­ing a rich con­text for the expe­ri­ence by adding togeth­er visu­al, audi­to­ry, and oth­er infor­ma­tion about the fact. By weav­ing a web of infor­ma­tion around that fact, you cre­ate mul­ti­ple access points to that piece of infor­ma­tion. On the oth­er hand, rep­e­ti­tion drills in the same path­way over and over until it is a well-worn path that you can eas­i­ly find.

One com­mon tech­nique used by stu­dents, is actu­al­ly, not that help­ful. Mnemon­ic tech­niques of using the first let­ter of each word in a series won’t help you remem­ber the actu­al words. It will help you remem­ber the order of words you already know. The phrase My Very Ener­getic Moth­er Just Screamed Utter Non­sense can help you remem­ber the order the plan­ets in our solar sys­tem, but it won’t help you recall the indi­vid­ual plan­et names: Mer­cury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Sat­urn, Uranus, Nep­tune.

These tech­niques do help you improve your mem­o­ry on a behav­ioral lev­el, but not on a fun­da­men­tal brain struc­ture lev­el. The main rea­son it gets hard­er for you to learn and remem­ber new things as you age is that your brain’s pro­cess­ing speed slows down as you get old­er. It becomes hard­er to do more than one thing at the same time, so it’s eas­i­er to get con­fused. Your brain may also become less flex­i­ble, so it’s hard­er to change learn­ing strate­gies in mid-stream. All these things mean it becomes hard­er to focus. So far, there’s noth­ing you can do to change your brain’s pro­cess­ing speed, but there are tech­niques you can use to increase your learn­ing per­for­mance, even if your pro­cess­ing speed has slowed.

Alert­ness, focus, con­cen­tra­tion, moti­va­tion, and height­ened aware­ness are large­ly a mat­ter of atti­tude. Focus takes effort. In fact, most mem­o­ry com­plaints have noth­ing to do with the actu­al abil­i­ty of the brain to remem­ber things. They come from a fail­ure to focus prop­er­ly on the task at hand.

If you want to learn or remem­ber some­thing, con­cen­trate on just that one thing. Tune out every­thing else. The hard­er the task, the more impor­tant it is to tune out dis­trac­tions. (If some­one tells you they can do their home­work bet­ter with the TV or radio on, don’t believe it. Any speech or speech-like sounds auto­mat­i­cal­ly use up part of your brain’s atten­tion capac­i­ty, whether you are aware of it or not.) In oth­er words, it can be hard to do more than one thing at once, and it nat­u­ral­ly gets hard­er as you get old­er. The solu­tion is to make more of an effort not to let your­self get dis­tract­ed until you’ve fin­ished what you have to do.

When you learn some­thing new, take breaks so that the facts won’t inter­fere with one anoth­er as you study them. If you’ve ever been to a movie dou­ble fea­ture, you know that you’ll have a hard time remem­ber­ing the plot and details of the first movie imme­di­ate­ly after see­ing the sec­ond. Inter­fer­ence also works the oth­er way. Some­times when your friend gets a new tele­phone num­ber, the old one will still be so famil­iar to you that it’s hard to remem­ber the new one.

Keep read­ing…

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