Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

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Cognitive and Emotional Development Through Play

We some­times neglect to men­tion a very basic yet pow­er­ful method of cog­ni­tive and emo­tion­al devel­op­ment, for chil­dren and adults alike: Play.

Dr. David Elkind, author of The Pow­er of Play: Learn­ing That Comes Nat­u­ral­ly, dis­cuss­es the need to build a more “play­ful cul­ture” in this great arti­cle The Power of Play And Learningbrought to you thanks to our col­lab­o­ra­tion with Greater Good Mag­a­zine.

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Can We Play?

– By Dr. David Elkind

Play is rapid­ly dis­ap­pear­ing from our homes, our schools, and our neigh­bor­hoods. Over the last two decades alone, chil­dren have lost eight hours of free, unstruc­tured, and spon­ta­neous play a week. More than 30,000 schools in the Unit­ed States have elim­i­nat­ed recess to make more time for aca­d­e­mics. From 1997 to 2003, children’s time spent out­doors fell 50 per­cent, accord­ing to a study by San­dra Hof­ferth at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land. Hof­ferth has also found that the amount of time chil­dren spend in orga­nized sports has dou­bled, and the num­ber of min­utes chil­dren devote each week to pas­sive leisure, not includ­ing watch­ing tele­vi­sion, has increased from 30 min­utes to more than three hours. It is no sur­prise, then, that child­hood obe­si­ty is now con­sid­ered an epi­dem­ic.

But the prob­lem goes well beyond obe­si­ty. Decades of research has shown that play is cru­cial to phys­i­cal, intel­lec­tu­al, and social-emo­tion­al devel­op­ment at all ages. This is espe­cial­ly true of the purest form of play: the unstruc­tured, self-moti­vat­ed, imag­i­na­tive, inde­pen­dent kind, where chil­dren ini­ti­ate their own games and even invent their own rules.

Read the rest of this entry »

Learning & The Brain Conference: discount for SharpBrains readers

San Francisco Golden Gate BridgeCon­text: Last Feb­ru­ary we had the chance to attend a great con­fer­ence on how brain research is influ­enc­ing edu­ca­tion. High­ly rec­om­mend­ed. Car­o­line wrote our impres­sions, sum­ma­rized as “It was a fas­ci­nat­ing mix of neu­ro­sci­en­tists and edu­ca­tors talk­ing with and lis­ten­ing to each oth­er. Some top­ics were meant to be applied today, but many were food for thought — insight on where sci­ence and edu­ca­tion are head­ed and how they influ­ence each oth­er”. See some of our take-aways below.

Announce­ment: the 2008 edi­tion of this con­fer­ence, titled Using Brain Research to Enhance Learn­ing, Atten­tion & Mem­o­ry For Edu­ca­tors, Par­ents and Clin­i­cians, will take place in San Fran­cis­co, on Feb­ru­ary 7–9th, 2008. The orga­niz­ers have kind­ly invit­ed me to deliv­er a lec­ture on Inter­ven­tions to Sharp­en Minds, as part of the Brain Plas­tic­i­ty & Atten­tion track. I will pro­vide an overview of the sci­ence behind com­put­er-based cog­ni­tive train­ing inter­ven­tions and dis­cuss a num­ber of research-based pro­grams that are being used today. Let me know if you are plan­ning to attend!

Reg­is­tra­tion fees: the gen­er­al reg­is­tra­tion fees are $495 per per­son, if you reg­is­ter before Jan­u­ary 25th, 2008.

Spe­cial Dis­count for Sharp­Brains read­ers: you can reg­is­ter for $450 before that date,  mak­ing sure to write
SharpBrains1 in the com­ments sec­tion of How did you hear about the con­fer­ence? in this Reg­is­tra­tion Page.

To learn more about the con­fer­ence: Read the rest of this entry »

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 »

Brain Health and The way we age now

The New Yorker April 30th issue includes a superb arti­cle on The Way We Age Now: Can med­i­cine serve an aging pop­u­la­tion?. Atul Gawande pro­vides a great (and a bit depress­ing) sur­vey on the geri­atrics field: more and more need for prac­ti­tion­ers, with less and less sup­ply.

now, a cou­ple of quotes and data points that are very rel­e­vant to our efforts around healthy brain aging.

  • for most of our hun­dred-thou­sand-year existence—all but the past cou­ple of hun­dred years—the aver­age life span of human beings has been thir­ty years or less. (Research sug­gests that sub­jects of the Roman Empire had an aver­age life expectan­cy of twen­ty-eight years.)”
  • Inher­i­tance has sur­pris­ing­ly lit­tle influ­ence on longevi­ty. James Vau­pel, of the Max Planck Insti­tute for Demo­graph­ic Research, in Ros­tock, Ger­many, notes that only six per cent of how long you’ll live, com­pared with the aver­age, is explained by your par­ents’ longevi­ty; by con­trast, up to nine­ty per cent of how tall you are, com­pared with the aver­age, is explained by your par­ents’ height. Even genet­i­cal­ly iden­ti­cal twins vary wide­ly in life span: the typ­i­cal gap is more than fif­teen years.”

Fas­ci­nat­ing. First, let’s appre­ci­ate our incred­i­ble life expectan­cy today; we are lit­er­al­ly push­ing the envel­op of how to main­tain healthy brains and bod­ies. By his­tor­i­cal stan­dards, many of us are liv­ing on “bor­rowed” time. Sec­ond, there you have some evi­dence for the impor­tance of our expe­ri­ence and our lifestyle on how long we live. In terms of healthy aging, on aver­age, nur­ture seems to be at least as impor­tant as nature, and the one more in our con­trol to take action today.

You can learn more on the Suc­cess­ful Aging of the Healthy Brain: a beau­ti­ful essay by Mar­i­an Dia­mond on how to keep our brains and minds active and fit through­out our lives.

Relat­ed blog posts

Books on neuroplasticity and memory training

Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty: the brain’s abil­i­ty to reor­ga­nize itself by form­ing new con­nec­tions through­out life. (see more con­cepts in our Glos­sary).

We coudn’t be hap­pi­er about the grow­ing num­ber of books pop­u­lar­iz­ing the key lessons about brain train­ing that Dr. Elkhonon Gold­berg has been research­ing and writ­ing about for years, and that moti­vat­ed us to embark our­selves in the Sharp­Brains adven­ture.

Dis­cov­er Mag­a­zine presents a great arti­cle, Rewiring the Brain, review­ing two recent books.

  • The sub­ti­tle is “Neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty can allow for treat­ment of senil­i­ty, post-trau­mat­ic stress, ­obses­sive-com­pul­sive dis­or­der, and depres­sion and Bud­dhists have been cap­i­tal­iz­ing on it for mil­lenia.” I would add that the strong val­ue of life­long learn­ing present in jesuit and jew­ish tra­di­tions reflects the same wis­dom. Some quotes:
  • Two new books, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain (Bal­lan­tine Books, $24.95) by sci­ence jour­nal­ist Sharon Beg­ley and The Brain That Changes Itself (Viking, $24.95) by psy­chi­a­trist Nor­man Doidge, offer mas­ter­ful­ly guid­ed tours through the bur­geon­ing field of neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty research. Each has its own style and empha­sis; both are excel­lent.”
  • Final­ly, both authors con­clude that adult neu­ro­plas­tic­i­ty is a vast­ly under­tapped resource, one with which West­ern med­i­cine and psy­chol­o­gy are just now com­ing to grips. An impor­tant emerg­ing research agen­da is to Read the rest of this entry »

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