Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

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How does mindfulness improve self-control and executive functioning?

MeditationWe have emo­tions for a rea­son. Anger in response to injus­tice can sig­nal that the sit­u­a­tion needs to change; sad­ness in response to loss can sig­nal that we’d like to keep the peo­ple we love in our lives.

It’s when we rumi­nate, or get caught up in our emo­tions, that they might become mal­adap­tive. That’s when Read the rest of this entry »

Transcendental Meditation and Working Memory Training To Enhance Executive Functions

New study shows Tran­scen­den­tal Med­i­ta­tion improves brain func­tion­ing in ADHD stu­dents (press release):

- “Pri­or research shows ADHD chil­dren have slow­er brain devel­op­ment and a reduced abil­i­ty to cope with stress,” said Dr. Stixrud. “Vir­tu­al­ly every­one finds it dif­fi­cult to pay atten­tion, orga­nize them­selves and get things done when they’re under stress,” he explained. “Stress inter­feres with Read the rest of this entry »

Are videogames good for YOU? Depends on who YOU are

Two recent sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies pub­lished by Dr. Arthur Kramer and col­leagues present Rise of Nations Arthur Kramerfas­ci­nat­ing results. The two stud­ies are:

1) Basak C, et al “Can train­ing in a real-time strat­e­gy video game atten­u­ate cog­ni­tive decline in old­er adults?” Psy­chol Aging 2008; DOI: 10.1037/a0013494.

2) Boot, W. R., Kramer, A. F., Simons, D. J., Fabi­ani, M. & Grat­ton, G. (2008) The effects of video game play­ing on atten­tion, mem­o­ry, and exec­u­tive con­trol. Acta Psy­cho­log­i­ca, 129, 387–398.

Let’s first review the first study, a sig­nif­i­cant exper­i­ment in that it showed wide cog­ni­tive ben­e­fits in adults over 60 years old who played a strat­e­gy videogame (Rise of Nations) for 23 hours.

Play­ing com­put­er games improves brain pow­er of old­er adults, claim sci­en­tists (Tele­graph)

- The team at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois recruit­ed 40 adults over 60 years old, half of whom were asked to play a com­put­er game called Rise of Nations, a role-play­ing game in which you have to build your own empire.

- Game play­ers have to build cities, feed and employ their peo­ple, main­tain an ade­quate mil­i­tary and expand their ter­ri­to­ry.

- Both groups were assessed before, dur­ing and after the video game train­ing on a vari­ety of tests.

- As a group, the “gamers” became sig­nif­i­cant­ly bet­ter and faster at Read the rest of this entry »

Physical Exercise and Brain Health

Healthy Seniors

What is the con­nec­tion between phys­i­cal and men­tal exer­cise? Do they have addi­tive effects on brain health? Are they redun­dant?

Let’s start by review­ing what we know about the effects of phys­i­cal exer­cise on the brain.

The effect of phys­i­cal exer­cise on cog­ni­tive per­for­mance

Ear­ly stud­ies com­pared groups of peo­ple who exer­cised to groups of peo­ple who did not exer­cise much. Results showed that peo­ple who exer­cised usu­al­ly had bet­ter per­for­mance in a range of cog­ni­tive tasks com­pared to non-exer­cis­ers.

Lau­rin and col­leagues (2001) even sug­gest­ed that mod­er­ate and high lev­els of phys­i­cal activ­i­ty were asso­ci­at­ed with low­er risk for Alzheimer’s dis­ease and oth­er demen­tias.

The prob­lem with these stud­ies is that the exer­cis­ers and the non-exer­cis­ers may dif­fer on oth­er fac­tors than just exer­cise. The advan­tage that exer­cis­er show may not come from exer­cis­ing but from oth­er fac­tors such as more resources, bet­ter brain health to start with, bet­ter diet, etc.

The solu­tion to this prob­lem is to ran­dom­ly assigned peo­ple to either an aer­o­bic train­ing group or a con­trol group. If the exer­cis­er group and the non-exer­cis­er group are very sim­i­lar to start with and if the exer­cis­er group shows less decline or bet­ter per­for­mance over time than the non-exer­cis­er group, then one can con­clude that phys­i­cal exer­cise is ben­e­fi­cial for brain health.

In 2003, Col­combe and Kramer, ana­lyzed the results of 18 sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies pub­lished between 2000 and 2001 that were con­duct­ed in the way described above.

The results of this meta-analy­sis clear­ly showed that fit­ness train­ing increas­es cog­ni­tive per­for­mance in healthy adults between the ages of 55 and 80.

Anoth­er meta-analy­sis pub­lished in 2004 by Heyn and col­leagues shows sim­i­lar ben­e­fi­cial effects of fit­ness train­ing on peo­ple over 65 years old who had cog­ni­tive impair­ment or demen­tia.

What is the effect of fit­ness train­ing on the brain itself?

Research with ani­mals has shown that in mice, increased aer­o­bic fit­ness (run­ning) can increase the num­ber of new cells formed in the hip­pocam­pus (the hip­pocam­pus is cru­cial for learn­ing and mem­o­ry). Increased exer­cise also has a ben­e­fi­cial effect on mice’s vas­cu­lar sys­tem.

Only one study has used brain imag­ing to look at the effect of fit­ness on the human brain. In 2006, Col­combe and col­leagues ran­dom­ly assigned 59 old­er adults to either a car­dio­vas­cu­lar exer­cise group, or a non­aer­o­bic exer­cise con­trol group (stretch­ing and ton­ing exer­cise). Par­tic­i­pants exer­cised 3h per week for 6 months. Col­combe et al. scanned the par­tic­i­pants’ brains before and after the train­ing peri­od.

After 6 months, the brain vol­ume of the aer­o­bic exer­cis­ing group increased in sev­er­al areas com­pared to the oth­er group. Vol­ume increase occurred prin­ci­pal­ly in frontal and tem­po­ral areas of the brain involved in exec­u­tive con­trol and mem­o­ry process­es. The authors do not know what under­ly­ing cel­lu­lar changes might have caused these vol­ume changes. How­ev­er they sus­pect, based on ani­mal research, that vol­ume changes may be due to an increased num­ber of blood ves­sels and an increased num­ber of con­nec­tions between neu­rons.

How does phys­i­cal exer­cise com­pare to men­tal exer­cise?

Very few stud­ies have tried to com­pare the effect of phys­i­cal exer­cise and men­tal exer­cise on cog­ni­tive per­for­mance.brain books

When look­ing at each domain of research one notices the fol­low­ing dif­fer­ences:

- The effects of cog­ni­tive or men­tal exer­cise on per­for­mance seem to be very task spe­cif­ic, that is trained tasks ben­e­fit from train­ing but the ben­e­fits do not trans­fer very well to tasks in which one was not trained.

- The effects of phys­i­cal exer­cise on per­for­mance seem broad­er. How­ev­er they do not gen­er­al­ize to all tasks. They ben­e­fit most­ly tasks that involve exec­u­tive-con­trol com­po­nents (that is, tasks that require plan­ning, work­ing mem­o­ry, mul­ti­task­ing, resis­tance to dis­trac­tion).

To my knowl­edge only one study tried to direct­ly com­pare cog­ni­tive and fit­ness train­ing:

Keep read­ing…

Happier, and Positive Psychology

LifeT­wo, the web­site focused on all aspects of midlife chal­lenges, from midlife cri­sis to midlife career change, is pre­sent­ing a “How to be Hap­py” week, based on the work of Har­vard Pro­fes­sor Dr. Tal Ben-Sha­har and his book “Hap­pi­er”. Dr. Ben-Sha­har teach­es Har­vard’s most pop­u­lar class, on Pos­i­tive Psy­chol­o­gy.

Today is their Day 1: From Hap­py to Hap­pi­er.

A num­ber of good blog­gers are col­lab­o­rat­ing: Hap­pi­ness Project, The Brazen Careerist, MenAlive, The Dat­ing God­dess, Boomer Chron­i­cles, Man-o-Pause, Aging­Back­wards. I will be hon­ored to pro­vide a guest col­umn, this Thurs­day, on how to iden­ti­fy and over­come some com­mon brain-based obsta­cles to being hap­py, and how you apply the lat­est brain sci­ence devel­op­ments in your own quest to be hap­pi­er. In the mean­while, you may enjoy the post On being pos­i­tive, and check out Day 1: From Hap­py to Hap­pi­er.

Enjoy the week!

About SharpBrains

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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