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Cognitive Reserve and Intellectually Demanding Jobs

I hope you are hav­ing hap­py hol­i­days, and are get­ting ready for New Year cel­e­bra­tions. Best wish­es to you and your loved ones.

Via Med­Jour­nal­Watch we just found this inter­est­ing paper,

Asso­ci­a­tions of job demands and intel­li­gence with cog­ni­tive per­for­mance among men in late life. Guy G. Pot­ter PhD*, Michael J. Helms BS, and Bren­da L. Plass­man PhD Neu­rol­o­gy 2007.

- CONCLUSIONS: “Intel­lec­tu­al­ly demand­ing work was asso­ci­at­ed with greater ben­e­fit to cog­ni­tive per­for­mance in lat­er life inde­pen­dent of relat­ed fac­tors like edu­ca­tion and intel­li­gence. The fact that indi­vid­u­als with low­er intel­lec­tu­al apti­tude demon­strat­ed a stronger pos­i­tive asso­ci­a­tion between work and high­er cog­ni­tive per­for­mance dur­ing retire­ment sug­gests that behav­ior may enhance intel­lec­tu­al reserve, per­haps even years after peak intel­lec­tu­al activ­i­ty.”

This is con­sis­tent with the Cog­ni­tive Reserve the­o­ry we dis­cussed in the inter­view with neu­ro­sci­en­tist Yaakov Stern:

- AF (Alvaro Fer­nan­dez): OK, so our goal is to build that Reserve of neu­rons, synaps­es, and skills. How can we do that? What defines “men­tal­ly stim­u­lat­ing activ­i­ties” or good “brain exer­cise”?

- YS (Yaakov Stern): In sum­ma­ry, we could say that “stim­u­la­tion” con­sists of engag­ing in activ­i­ties. In our research almost all activ­i­ties are seen to con­tribute to reserve. Some have chal­leng­ing lev­els of cog­ni­tive com­plex­i­ty, and some have inter­per­son­al or phys­i­cal demands. In ani­mal stud­ies, expo­sure to an enriched envi­ron­ment or increased phys­i­cal activ­i­ty result in increased neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis (the cre­ation of new neu­rons). You can get that stim­u­la­tion through edu­ca­tion and/ or your occu­pa­tion. There is clear research show­ing how those two ele­ments reduce the risk. Now, what is very excit­ing is that, no mat­ter one’s age, edu­ca­tion and occu­pa­tion, our lev­el of par­tic­i­pa­tion in leisure activ­i­ties has a sig­nif­i­cant and cumu­la­tive effect. A key mes­sage here is that dif­fer­ent activ­i­ties have inde­pen­dent, syn­er­gis­tic, con­tri­bu­tions, which means the more things you do and the ear­li­er you start, the bet­ter. But you are nev­er stuck: bet­ter late than nev­er.

- Read more on the Cog­ni­tive Reserve

In short, men­tal­ly and social­ly stim­u­lat­ing activ­i­ties, through our edu­ca­tion, occu­pa­tion AND leisure activ­i­ties, con­tribute to build­ing a Cog­ni­tive Reserve in our brains that may help delay mem­o­ry prob­lems, Mild Cog­ni­tive Impair­ment, and Alzheimer’s relat­ed symp­toms, and help main­tain cog­ni­tive per­for­mance over­all as we age.

If you are think­ing about New Year Res­o­lu­tions, this is one more area to con­sid­er. Hap­py 2008!

Neuroplasticity 101 and Brain Health Glossary

Giv­en the grow­ing num­ber of arti­cles in the pop­u­lar press men­tion­ing words such as “neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty”, “fMRI” and “cog­ni­tive reserve”, let’s review some key find­ings, con­cepts and terms.

First, a pre­scient quote by Span­ish neu­ro­sci­en­tist San­ti­a­go Ramon y Cajal (1852–1934): “Every man can, if he so desires, become the sculp­tor his own brain”.

fmri.jpgThanks to new neu­roimag­ing tech­niques, regard­ed “as impor­tant for neu­ro­science as tele­scopes were for astron­o­my, neu­ro­sci­en­tists and cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gists have been find­ing that the brain has a num­ber of “core capac­i­ties” and “men­tal mus­cles” that can be exer­cised through nov­el­ty, vari­ety and prac­tice, and that exer­cis­ing our brain can influ­ence the gen­er­a­tion of new neu­rons and their con­nec­tions. Brain exer­cise is being rec­og­nized, there­fore, as a crit­i­cal pil­lar of brain health, togeth­er with nutri­tion, phys­i­cal exer­cise and stress man­age­ment.

Pre­vi­ous beliefs about our brain and how it works have been proven false. Some beliefs that have been debunked include claims that adult brains can not cre­ate new neu­rons (shown to be false by Berke­ley sci­en­tists Mar­i­an Dia­mond and Mark Rosen­zweig, and Salk Institute’s Fred Gage), notions that work­ing mem­o­ry has a max­i­mum lim­it of 6 or 7 items (debunked by Karolin­s­ka Insti­tute Torkel Kling­berg), and assump­tions that the brain’s basic process­es can not be reor­ga­nized by repeat­ed prac­tice (UCSF’s Drs. Paula Tal­lal and Michael Merzenich). The “men­tal mus­cles” we can train include atten­tion, stress and emo­tion­al man­age­ment, mem­o­ry, visual/ spa­tial, audi­to­ry process­es and lan­guage, motor coor­di­na­tion and exec­u­tive func­tions like plan­ning and prob­lem-solv­ing.

Men­tal stim­u­la­tion is impor­tant if done in the right sup­port­ive and engag­ing envi­ron­ment. Stanford’s Robert Sapol­sky has proven that chron­ic stress and cor­ti­cal inhi­bi­tion, which may be aggra­vat­ed due to imposed men­tal stim­u­la­tion, may prove coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. Hav­ing the right moti­va­tion is essen­tial.

A sur­pris­ing and promis­ing area of sci­en­tif­ic inquiry is Mind­ful­ness-Based Stress Reduc­tion (MBSR). An increas­ing num­ber of neu­ro­sci­en­tists (such as Uni­ver­si­ty of Wisconsin-Madison’s Richard David­son) are inves­ti­gat­ing the abil­i­ty of trained med­i­ta­tors to devel­op and sus­tain atten­tion and visu­al­iza­tions and to work pos­i­tive­ly with pow­er­ful emo­tion­al states and stress through the direct­ed men­tal process­es of med­i­ta­tion prac­tices.

And now, some key­words:

Brain Fit­ness Pro­gram: struc­tured set of brain exer­cis­es, usu­al­ly com­put­er-based, designed to train spe­cif­ic brain areas and process­es in tar­get­ed ways.

Chron­ic Stress: ongo­ing, long-term stress, which blocks the for­ma­tion of new neu­rons and Read the rest of this entry »

I am busy executive with a challenging job. How is brain fitness relevant to me?

Here is ques­tion 21 from Brain Fit­ness 101: Answers to Your Top 25 Ques­tions.

Question:

I am busy exec­u­tive with a chal­leng­ing job. How is brain fit­ness rel­e­vant to me?

Key Points:
  • Reduce your stress to improve con­cen­tra­tion and learn­ing readi­ness and reduce dis­trac­tions.
  • Increase your men­tal stim­u­la­tion to help main­tain a healthy, flex­i­ble brain.
Answer:

Exec­u­tives, or any­one involved in com­plex and rapid­ly evolv­ing envi­ron­ments, need to make pres­sured deci­sions based on sound log­ic, instead of emo­tion­al impuls­es. It is not easy to deal with the frus­tra­tion, for exam­ple, when Read the rest of this entry »

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and other stress management techniques

We have explained before how men­tal stim­u­la­tion is impor­tant if done in the right sup­port­ive and engag­ing envi­ron­ment. Stanford’s Robert Sapol­sky and oth­ers’ have shown that chron­ic stress and cor­ti­cal inhi­bi­tion, which may be aggra­vat­ed due to imposed men­tal stim­u­la­tion, may prove coun­ter­pro­duc­tive. Hav­ing the right moti­va­tion is essen­tial.

A promis­ing area of sci­en­tif­ic inquiry for stress man­age­ment’ is Mind­ful­ness-Based Stress Reduc­tion (MBSR).’ You may have read about it in Sharon Begley’s’ Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain’ book. An increas­ing num­ber of neu­ro­sci­en­tists (such as UMass Med­ical School’s Jon Kabat-Zinn and Uni­ver­si­ty of Wisconsin-Madison’s Richard David­son) have been inves­ti­gat­ing the abil­i­ty of trained med­i­ta­tors to devel­op and sus­tain atten­tion and visu­al­iza­tions and to work pos­i­tive­ly with pow­er­ful emo­tion­al states and stress through the direct­ed men­tal process­es of med­i­ta­tion prac­tices. And have put their research into prac­tice for the ben­e­fit of many hos­pi­tal patients through their MSBR pro­grams.

A Stan­ford psy­chol­o­gist and friend recent­ly alert­ed me to a sim­i­lar pro­gram orga­nized Read the rest of this entry »

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