Thursday, June 14, 2012

It is Not Only Cars That Deserve Good Maintenance: Brain Care 101

By: Alvaro Fernandez

Last week, the US Car Care Coun­cil released a list of tips on how to take care of your car and “save big money at the pump in 2008.”

You may not have paid much atten­tion to this announce­ment. Yes, it’s impor­tant to save gas these days; but, it’s not big news that good main­te­nance habits will improve the per­for­mance of a car, and extend its life.

If we can all agree on the impor­tance of main­tain­ing our cars that get us around town, what about main­tain­ing our brains sit­ting behind the wheel?

A spate of recent news cov­er­age on brain fit­ness and “brain train­ing” has missed an impor­tant con­stituency: younger peo­ple. Recent advance­ments in brain sci­ence have as tremen­dous impli­ca­tions for teenagers and adults of all ages as they do for seniors.

In a recent con­ver­sa­tion with neu­ro­sci­en­tist Yaakov Stern of Colum­bia Uni­ver­sity , he related how sur­prised he was when, years ago, a reporter from Sev­en­teen mag­a­zine requested an inter­view. The reporter told Dr. Stern that he wanted to write an arti­cle to moti­vate kids to stay in school and not to drop out, in order to start build­ing their Cog­ni­tive Reserve early and age more gracefully.

What is the Cog­ni­tive Reserve?

Emerg­ing research since the 90s from the past decade shows that indi­vid­u­als who lead men­tally stim­u­lat­ing lives, through their edu­ca­tion, their jobs, and also their hob­bies, build a “Cog­ni­tive Reserve” in their brains. Only a few weeks ago another study rein­forced the value of intel­lec­tu­aly demand­ing jobs.

Stim­u­lat­ing the brain can lit­er­ally gen­er­ate new neu­rons and strengthen their con­nec­tions which results in bet­ter brain per­for­mance and in hav­ing a lower risk of devel­op­ing Alzheimer’s symp­toms. Stud­ies sug­gest that peo­ple who exer­cise their men­tal mus­cles through­out their lives have a 35–40% less risk of man­i­fest­ing Alzheimer’s.

As astound­ing as these insights may be, most Amer­i­cans still devote more time to chang­ing the oil, tak­ing a car to a mechanic, or wash­ing it, than think­ing about how to main­tain, if not improve, their brain performance.

Fur­ther, bet­ter brain scan­ning tech­niques like fMRI (glos­sary ) are allow­ing sci­en­tists to inves­ti­gate healthy live brains for the first time in his­tory. Two of the most impor­tant find­ings from this research are that our brains are plas­tic (mean­ing they not only cre­ate new neu­rons but also can change their struc­ture) through­out a life­time and that frontal lobes are the most plas­tic area. Frontal lobes, the part of our brains right behind the fore­head, con­trols “exec­u­tive func­tions” — which deter­mine our abil­ity to pay atten­tion, plan for the future and direct behav­ior toward achiev­ing goals. They are crit­i­cal for adapt­ing to new sit­u­a­tions. We exer­cise them best by learn­ing and mas­ter­ing new skills.

This part of the brain is del­i­cate: our frontal lobes wait until our mid to late 20s to fully mature. They are also the first part of our brain to start to decline, usu­ally by mid­dle age.

In my view, not enough young and middle-aged peo­ple are ben­e­fit­ing from this emerg­ing research, since it has been per­ceived as some­thing “for seniors.” Granted, there are still many unknowns in the world of brain fit­ness and cog­ni­tive train­ing, we need more research, bet­ter assess­ments and tools. But, this does not mean we can­not start car­ing for our brains today.

Recent stud­ies have shown a tremen­dous vari­abil­ity in how well peo­ple age and how, to a large extent, our actions influ­ence our rate of brain improve­ment and/or decline. The ear­lier we begin the bet­ter. And it is never too late.

What can we do to main­tain our brain, espe­cially the frontal lobes? Focus on four pil­lars of brain health: phys­i­cal exer­cise , a bal­anced diet , stress man­age­ment , and brain exer­cise . Stress man­age­ment is impor­tant since stress has been shown to actu­ally kill neu­rons and reduce the rate of cre­ation of new ones. Brain exer­cises range from low-tech (i.e. med­i­ta­tion , mas­ter­ing new com­plex skills, life­long learn­ing and engage­ment ) to high-tech (i.e. using the grow­ing num­ber of brain fit­ness soft­ware pro­grams ).

I know, this is start­ing to sound like those lists we all know are good for us but we actu­ally don’t do. Let me make it eas­ier by propos­ing a new New Year Res­o­lu­tion for 2008: every time you wash your car or have it washed in 2008, ask your­self, “What have I done lately to main­tain my brain?”

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Brain Plasticity: How learning changes your brain

By: Dr. Pascale Michelon

You may have heard that the brain is plas­tic. As you know the brain is not made of plas­tic! Neu­ro­plas­tic­ity or brain plas­tic­ity refers to the brain’s abil­ity to CHANGE through­out life. The brain has the amaz­ing abil­ity to reor­ga­nize itself by form­ing new con­nec­tions between brain cells (neurons).

In addi­tion to genetic fac­tors, the envi­ron­ment in which a per­son lives, as well as the actions of that per­son, play a role in plasticity.

Neu­ro­plas­tic­ity occurs in the brain:

1– At the begin­ning of life: when the imma­ture brain orga­nizes itself.

2– In case of brain injury: to com­pen­sate for lost func­tions or max­i­mize remain­ing functions.

3– Through adult­hood: when­ever some­thing new is learned and memorized
Plas­tic­ity and brain injury

A sur­pris­ing con­se­quence of neu­ro­plas­tic­ity is that the brain activ­ity asso­ci­ated with a given func­tion can move to a dif­fer­ent loca­tion as a con­se­quence of nor­mal expe­ri­ence, brain dam­age or recovery.

In his book “The Brain That Changes Itself: Sto­ries of Per­sonal Tri­umph from the Fron­tiers of Brain Sci­ence , Nor­man Doidge describes numer­ous exam­ples of func­tional shifts.

In one of them, a sur­geon in his 50s suf­fers a stroke. His left arm is par­a­lyzed. Dur­ing his reha­bil­i­ta­tion, his good arm and hand are immo­bi­lized, and he is set to clean­ing tables. The task is at first impos­si­ble. Then slowly the bad arm remem­bers how too move. He learns to write again, to play ten­nis again: the func­tions of the brain areas killed in the stroke have trans­ferred them­selves to healthy regions!

The brain com­pen­sates for dam­age by reor­ga­niz­ing and form­ing new con­nec­tions between intact neu­rons. In order to recon­nect, the neu­rons need to be stim­u­lated through activity.

Plas­tic­ity, learn­ing and memory

For a long time, it was believed that as we aged, the con­nec­tions in the brain became fixed. Research has shown that in fact the brain never stops chang­ing through learn­ing. Plas­tic­ity IS the capac­ity of the brain to change with learn­ing. Changes asso­ci­ated with learn­ing occur mostly at the level of the con­nec­tions between neu­rons. New con­nec­tions can form and the inter­nal struc­ture of the exist­ing synapses can change.

Did you know that when you become an expert in a spe­cific domain, the areas in your brain that deal with this type of skill will grow?

For instance, Lon­don taxi dri­vers have a larger hip­pocam­pus (in the pos­te­rior region) than Lon­don bus dri­vers (Maguire, Wool­lett, & Spiers, 2006). Why is that? It is because this region of the hip­pocam­pus is spe­cial­ized in acquir­ing and using com­plex spa­tial infor­ma­tion in order to nav­i­gate effi­ciently. Taxi dri­vers have to nav­i­gate around Lon­don whereas bus dri­vers fol­low a lim­ited set of routes.

Plas­tic­ity can also be observed in the brains of bilin­guals (Mechelli et al., 2004). It looks like learn­ing a sec­ond lan­guage is pos­si­ble through func­tional changes in the brain: the left infe­rior pari­etal cor­tex is larger in bilin­gual brains than in mono­lin­gual brains.

Plas­tic changes also occur in musi­cians brains com­pared to non-musicians. Gaser and Schlaug (2003) com­pared pro­fes­sional musi­cians (who prac­tice at least 1hour per day) to ama­teur musi­cians and non-musicians. They found that gray mat­ter (cor­tex) vol­ume was high­est in pro­fes­sional musi­cians, inter­me­di­ate in ama­teur musi­cians, and low­est in non-musicians in sev­eral brain areas involved in play­ing music: motor regions, ante­rior supe­rior pari­etal areas and infe­rior tem­po­ral areas.

Finally, Dra­gan­ski and col­leagues (2006) recently showed that exten­sive learn­ing of abstract infor­ma­tion can also trig­ger some plas­tic changes in the brain. They imaged the brains of Ger­man med­ical stu­dents 3 months before their med­ical exam and right after the exam and com­pared them to brains of stu­dents who were not study­ing for exam at this time. Med­ical stu­dents’ brains showed learning-induced changes in regions of the pari­etal cor­tex as well as in the pos­te­rior hip­pocam­pus. These regions of the brains are known to be involved in mem­ory retrieval and learning.

To go fur­ther: Q and A about Brain plas­tic­ity

Q: Can hor­mones change my brain?

A: It seems that the brain reacts toits hor­monal milieu with struc­tural mod­i­fi­ca­tions. Read more: Can the pill change women’s brains .

Q: Can new neu­rons grow in my brain?

A: Yes in some areas and through­out your life­time. Learn how and read about what hap­pens to these new neu­rons here: New neu­rons: good news, bad news .

Q: Where can I find more information?

A: Read the answers to 15 com­mon ques­tions about neu­ro­plas­tic­ity and brain fitness

Q: Can you rec­om­mend a good book to learn more about all this and how to apply it?

A: Sure! We pub­lished The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness: 18 Inter­views with Sci­en­tists, Prac­ti­cal Advice, and Prod­uct Reviews, to Main­tain Your Brain Sharp (April 2009; 182 pages) to pro­vide a com­pre­hen­sive and acces­si­ble entry into the research AND how to apply it. And we’re happy to report that AARP named it a Best Book on the subject!


Finally, you will find more related infor­ma­tion on how to improve con­cen­tra­tion and mem­ory by check­ing out these resources:

- Neu­ro­science Inter­view Series : inter­views with over 15 brain sci­en­tists and experts.

- Col­lec­tion of brain teasers and games : atten­tion, mem­ory, problem-solving, visual, and more.

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Working Memory and the Classroom

Why it is important to assess Working Memory in an educational setting
Published on June 11, 2012 by Tracy P. Alloway, Ph.D. in Keep It in Mind

As a psychologist, I have spent over a decade investigating how Working Memory is crucial to learning. Throughout this journey, I have the privilege of working closely with educators and parents and I am grateful to those who have contacted me and taken me beyond the world of theory and data to see the classroom from their perspective. Here are excerpts from some recent emails:

I have an 8-year-old son who has been struggling with school since he was 5. I've taken him to several psychologists, psychiatrists, and even pediatric neurologists and I have not gotten a clear diagnosis other than ADHD. What I noticed is that my son has an issue with his working memory. All of the research I did points to this being his major problem.

Samantha is 12 and has been assessed as having difficulties with her working memory. The school has identified this [and] I am keen to see if I can find ways to help my daughter.

Now more than ever, it is crucial to accurately assess Working Memory. The incidence of learning disorders is increasing and there is growing awareness of how Working Memory deficits feature in a number of learning difficulties. Working memory has also been described as a ‘controller’, a cognitive resource that can keep a goal in mind, bring in cognitive resources from different parts of the brain, and also manage incoming information.

Each of the learning needs listed in the Figure have very different areas of difficulty. For example, students with dyslexia are characterized by their trouble reading, those with dyscalculia find an assortment of math problems tricky, students with dyspraxia have motor impairments, those with ADHD display troublesome behavior, and students with Autistic Spectrum Disorder have limited social skills. Given their distinctive profile, what do these groups have in common? All of them have a weakness in working memory. That is not to say that poor working memory causes the core deficit in their respective disorder. However, it coexists as a separate problem and ultimately leads to learning difficulties. For example, a deficit in working memory does not cause motor problems, however in my own published research I found that working memory weaknesses in a student with dyspraxia leads to learning difficulties, regardless of their IQ.

Research to date indicates that teachers’ awareness of working memory deficits in the classroom can still be quite low. In a recent study, the majority of teachers interviewed only picked up early warning signs of working memory failure in their students 25 percent of the time, often thinking that the students were unmotivated or daydreaming instead.

So how can an educator accurately diagnosis a potential Working Memory problem in a student? Stemming from my research findings, I have published the Automated Working Memory Assessment, a computer-based assessment of working memory that has automatised test administration and presents results in a form that is easy to interpret by non-experts. The AWMA provides measures each of verbal and visuo-spatial short-term memory and working memory and currently, it is the only standardised assessment of working memory available for teachers to use. Not only does the AWMA eliminate the need for prior training in test administration, it also provides a practical and convenient way for educators to screen students for significant working memory problems. It is standardised for use from childhood (five years) to adulthood (80 years) in a revised version (due end-2012).

Once the specific strengths and weaknesses of a student’s working memory profile are known, specific and targeted accommodations can be made to support learning. The aim in supporting students with learning difficulties is not just to help them survive in the classroom, but to thrive as well. Strategies can provide scaffolding and support that will unlock their working memory potential to boost learning.

Recently, there has been an explosion of research investigating the potential benefits of training Working Memory. In a recent study of students with learning difficulties, a computerized working memory training programme ( was found to significantly improve verbal and visual-spatial working memory, IQ scores, as well as language scores as measured by standardized assessments.

When working with schools, I have seen how supporting their Working Memory can make a significant difference to their learning and ultimately their academic success. The interested reader is welcome to look at the resources listed below for further information on Working Memory and learning.

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