Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

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Travel and Engagement as Good Brain Exercise

University of Namibia

Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty is defined as “the abil­i­ty of the brain to rewire itself through expe­ri­ence”.

We typ­i­cal­ly sum­ma­rize a lot of brain research by encour­ag­ing Sharp­Brains read­ers is to seek for nov­el­ty, vari­ety and chal­lenge, as guide­lines for “brain exer­cise” that will help build new con­nec­tions in the brain, force one to be mind­ful and pay atten­tion, improve abil­i­ties such as pat­tern-recog­ni­tion, and in gen­er­al con­tribute to life­long brain health.

A friend just sent an update on her amaz­ing expe­ri­ence in Namib­ia (the pic on the right shows the entrance to the Uni­ver­si­ty of Namib­ia) that shows how Trav­el and Engage­ment with mean­ing­ful projects can pro­vide superb men­tal stim­u­la­tion, or “brain exer­cise”. This is rel­e­vant at all ages, and we are encour­aged to see orga­ni­za­tions such as Civic Ven­tures and Elder­hos­tel that offer oppor­tu­ni­ties for baby boomers and old­er adults who want to main­tain active minds.

Try pic­tur­ing in your mind, as you read this, all her dif­fer­ent brain areas that are get­ting need­ed stim­u­la­tion through her Namib­ia expe­ri­ence.

UPDATE: my friend just wrote to expand on the “be mind­ful” angle by say­ing that “it def­i­nite­ly requires pur­pose­ful pro­cess­ing of the infor­ma­tion that you are con­sum­ing in order to make it a use­ful brain exer­cise. For exam­ple, I always try to jour­nal or write thought­ful emails about my expe­ri­ence in order to try to best under­stand it.” Great point.

With her per­mis­sion, here you have:

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Dear Friends,

I am just return­ing from Namib­ia and am buzzing with excite­ment about all of the oppor­tu­ni­ties for us to make an impact there when we return with our stu­dents next Spring.

Namib­ia is very dif­fer­ent than I expect­ed. It was the last coun­try in Africa to gain inde­pen­dence from colo­nial­ism, gain­ing inde­pen­dence just 20 years ago. Thus, it is much more devel­oped than any African coun­try that I have vis­it­ed, with rel­a­tive­ly good infra­struc­ture and no exist­ing debt. That said, the lega­cies of apartheid can still be felt in today’s soci­ety, and the peo­ple are very clear­ly deal­ing con­stant­ly with issues of race and iden­ti­ty. One of the most inter­est­ing expe­ri­ences that I had was attend­ing a “braai” (the Namib­ian ver­sion of a bar­be­cue which basi­cal­ly con­sists of Read the rest of this entry »

Bill Gates Harvard commencement speech (and his Frontal Lobes)

Bill Gates deliv­ered a very inspir­ing com­mence­ment speech in Har­vard last week. I rec­om­mend read­ing the full Remarks of Bill Gates and reflect­ing on his core mes­sage, which may be sum­ma­rized in its last sen­tence:

  • And I hope you will come back here to Har­vard 30 years from now and reflect on what you have done with your tal­ent and your ener­gy. I hope you will judge your­selves not on your pro­fes­sion­al accom­plish­ments alone, but also on how well you have addressed the world’s deep­est inequities  on how well you treat­ed peo­ple a world away who have noth­ing in com­mon with you but their human­i­ty.”

A note­wor­thy aspect of the speech was the dis­play of what neu­ropsy­chol­o­gists call Exec­u­tive Func­tions, which are most­ly locat­ed in our Frontal Lobes-the most recent part of our brains in evo­lu­tion­ary terms, and that enable us to learn and adapt to new envi­ron­ments. What makes a “sharp brain”. You can read more about this in our post Exec­u­tive Func­tions and MacArthur “Genius Grants”.

See here Bill Gates’ advice on how to find solu­tions in com­plex envi­ron­ments-and how he applies a learned pat­tern to guide his actions in the field of AIDS pre­ven­tion:

  • Cut­ting through com­plex­i­ty to find a solu­tion runs through four pre­dictable stages: deter­mine a goal, find the high­est-lever­age approach, dis­cov­er the ide­al tech­nol­o­gy for that approach, and in the mean­time, make the smartest appli­ca­tion of the tech­nol­o­gy that you already have whether it’s some­thing sophis­ti­cat­ed, like a drug, or some­thing sim­pler, like a bed­net.”
  • The AIDS epi­dem­ic offers an exam­ple. The broad goal, of course, is to end the dis­ease. The high­est-lever­age approach is pre­ven­tion. The ide­al tech­nol­o­gy would be a vac­cine that gives life­time immu­ni­ty with a sin­gle dose. So gov­ern­ments, drug com­pa­nies, and foun­da­tions fund vac­cine research. But their work is like­ly to take more than a decade, so in the mean­time, we have to work with what we have in hand and the best pre­ven­tion approach we have now is get­ting peo­ple to avoid risky behav­ior.”
  • Pur­su­ing that goal starts the four-step cycle again. This is the pat­tern. The cru­cial thing is to nev­er stop think­ing and work­ing  and nev­er do what we did with malar­ia and tuber­cu­lo­sis in the 20th cen­tu­ry  which is to sur­ren­der to com­plex­i­ty and quit.”
  • The final step  after see­ing the prob­lem and find­ing an approach  is to mea­sure the impact of your work and share your suc­cess­es and fail­ures so that oth­ers learn from your efforts.”

Cer­tain­ly, good advice for us too to refine our Brain Fit­ness efforts. Here you have a rel­e­vant frag­ment of my (AF)recent inter­view with Dr. Elkhonon Gold­berg (EG):

AF: Please tell us more about what the Frontal Lobes are

EG: We researchers typ­i­cal­ly call them the Exec­u­tive Brain. The pre­frontal cor­tex is young by evo­lu­tion­ary terms, and is the brain area crit­i­cal to adapt to new sit­u­a­tions, plan for the future, and self-reg­u­late our actions in order to achieve long-term objec­tives. We could say that that part of the brain, right behind our fore­head, acts as the con­duc­tor of an orches­tra, direct­ing and inte­grat­ing the work of oth­er parts of the brain.

I pro­vide a good exam­ple in The Exec­u­tive Brain book, where I explain how I was able to orga­nize my escape from Rus­sia into the US.

Sig­nif­i­cant­ly, the path­ways that con­nect the frontal lobes with the rest of the brain are slow to mature, reach­ing full oper­a­tional state between ages 18 and 30, or maybe even lat­er. And, giv­en that they are not as hard-wired as oth­er parts of the brain, they are typ­i­cal­ly the first areas to decline.

Well, I’d say Mr. Gates has pret­ty mature and sol­id path­ways!

Exercise and The Brain in Newsweek

The new edi­tion of Newsweek brings us a great cov­er sto­ry titled Stronger, Faster, Smarter. “Exer­cise does more than build mus­cles and help pre­vent heart dis­ease. New sci­ence shows that it also boosts brainpower—and may offer hope in the bat­tle against Alzheimer’s.” Check it out!

We addressed the ques­tion Is phys­i­cal fit­ness impor­tant to your brain fit­ness? recent­ly:

Accord­ing to Fred Gage, PhD, of the Salk Insti­tute for Bio­log­i­cal Stud­ies, “We now know that exer­cise helps gen­er­ate new brain cells, even in the aging brain.

Accord­ing to the research of Richard Smeyne, PhD at Saint Jude Chil­dren’s Research Hos­pi­tal in Mem­phis, with just two months of exer­cise there are more brain cells and that high­er lev­els of exer­cise were sig­nif­i­cant­ly more ben­e­fi­cial than low­er amounts, although any exer­cise was bet­ter than none. He also found that Read the rest of this entry »

Smart Brains, Sharp Brain… new research on maintaining one

There has been a lot of recent buzz about brain fit­ness. A New York Times edi­to­r­i­al print­ed today states:

When test­ed five years lat­er, these par­tic­i­pants [in a cog­ni­tive train­ing study] had less of a decline in the skill they were trained in than did a con­trol group that received no cog­ni­tive train­ing. The pay­off from men­tal exer­cise seemed far greater than we are accus­tomed to get­ting for phys­i­cal exer­cise — as if 10 work­outs at the gym were enough to keep you fit five years lat­er.

and

If fur­ther stud­ies show that men­tal exer­cis­es can improve every­day func­tion­ing, doc­tors may need to pre­scribe such train­ing, senior cen­ters may want to set up “brain gyms,” and aging Amer­i­cans would be wise to do brain-stretch­ing activ­i­ties. For this pur­pose, even the Medicare pre­scrip­tion drug pro­gram, which crit­ics deem too con­fus­ing for many old­er peo­ple to nav­i­gate, could prove an unex­pect­ed bless­ing. Spend 10 hours mas­ter­ing its intri­ca­cies today and you could be a lot sharp­er than your com­pa­tri­ots five years from now.

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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