Posts Tagged ‘brain-training’

Brain Training Takes Time

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

A reminder here from the realm of football (soccer) that our brains take time to change:

The English Football Association hired a sports psychologist to try to bring a winning mindset to the country’s world cup players and the team.  Too little, too late argues Martin Lipton as England return home from Brasil without reaching the round of 16.

Studies show that with working memory brain training it can take 2 to 4 weeks before we begin to notice the benefits of increased focus and attention.

Brain Training for Chemobrain

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012

A new study gives hope to those suffering from cognitive impairment after chemotherapy (so-called “chemobrain”). The research paper presented in Breast Cancer Research and Treatment, found that brain training for breast cancer patients lead to better memory and improved cognition as well as a reduced tendency to anxiety and depression.

Cognitive problems after chemotherapy affect as many as three-quarters of breast cancer patients and the impact can last up to 10 years. The study gives the first glimpse of hope for addressing this problem. “It is exciting that the computerized brain training program improved both memory and information processing speed,” said Diane Von Ah, PhD, RN, lead researcher and assistant professor at the Indiana University School of Nursing.

After two months of brain training the participants displayed marked improvements in memory, processing speed, depression, and fatigue; benefits that held two months later, at which point anxiety symptoms also showed improvement.


Brain Fitness: Neurogenesis, Mood, PTSD

Tuesday, May 31st, 2011

New brain fitness research by a team at Columbia University isolates neurogenesis as a factor in improved pattern separation (in mice).

At first glance the report of this brain fitness research seemed like old news. The researchers had boosted neurogenesis and shown improved pattern separation (pattern separation is the brain function that enables us to make fine distinctions, such as distinguishing between similar places, events and experiences). But surely many previous brain fitness studies have shown a connection between neurogenesis and improved cognitive ability, I thought? Enriched environments and physical exercise, in particular, had been demonstrated to boost neurogenesis and cognitive ability.

But the new study isolated neurogenesis from all of the other possible influences on the boost in pattern separation:  “In addition to stimulating neurogenesis, these earlier methods exerted many other effects on the brain,” said Dr. René Hen, PhD, lead researcher on the study and professor of Neuroscience and Pharmacology, in the Departments of Neuroscience and Psychiatry at Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute. “As a result, you never knew with these older manipulations what’s due to neurogenesis, or what’s due to the other effects that these manipulations cause, and, indeed, what we find is that when you stimulate just adult neurogenesis, you actually get a subtle effect. Unlike broader manipulations, it does not affect all forms of learning, it’s very specific to tasks that require pattern separation.”

Dr. Hen points out that pattern separation is critical to many cognitive processes and boosting pattern separation could be beneficial to those with anxiety disorders, including PTSD, learning difficulties, cognitive loss due to aging or Alzheimers’, etc. “This paper, as a consequence, may stimulate a whole area of research in humans to try to determine who in the population may have a pattern separation deficit, and whether it is restricted to the emotional domain, or is present even while performing tasks devoid of emotional salience. Once these studies are done in humans, it may be possible to treat these people with specifically targeted drugs or more personalized therapies,” said Dr. Hen.

While targeted drugs could be one of the possible brain fitness options available to us, several years down the line, brain training software, physical exercise and enriched environments have been shown to bring about neurogenesis and cognitive gains and can be used today. Sure, they produce impacts in addition to neurogenesis, but these impacts are overwhelmingly, if not completely beneficial — such as increased blood flow and improved brain health.

Brain Fitness Training & Tourettes Treatment

Thursday, May 12th, 2011
brain fitness Tim Howard Tourette syndrome

Goalkeeper Tim Howard, a Tourette Sufferer

Brain fitness researchers Professor Stephen Jackson and Professor Georgina Jackson from the University of Nottingham have shown evidence, using brain imaging and behavioral techniques to study a group of children with Tourettes compared to a control group, that brain fitness training may be useful to help treat children with Tourette syndrome.

“We had previously shown, somewhat paradoxically, that children with Tourette syndrome have greater control over their motor behaviour than typically-developing children of a similar age,” said Stephen Jackson, brain fitness expert and Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience in the School of Psychology, “And we had speculated that this was due to compensatory changes in the brain that helped these children control their tics.

“This new study provides compelling evidence that this enhanced control of motor output is accompanied by structural and functional alterations within the brain. This finding suggests that non-pharmacological, ‘brain-training’, approaches may prove to be an effective treatment for Tourette syndrome.”

An inherited neurological condition affecting about one child in every hundred Tourette syndrome is associated with involuntary sounds and movements such as coughing, grunting, eye blinking and repeating of words. First showing itself at age six or seven, Tourette symptoms increase until age twelve and can continue into adulthood.

This brain fitness study is the latest in a long line of similar studies that demonstrate the brain’s ability to change and adapt when we train it.

Neurogenesis For Better Memory

Sunday, March 6th, 2011

New research into neurogenesis, brain plasticity and memory gives a clue as to how our brains form memories using new brain cells and a tantalizing promise of developing a better memory.

Working with mice, researchers tested how well the mice remembered the location of their last meal (by seeing how easily they could return to the site). When the food locations were well separated the mice did fine. But when the researchers placed the food quite close to a previous location, one group of mice became confused. In these mice the researchers had disabled hippocampal neurogenesis, disrupting the ability of the mice brains to generate new brain cells. Neurogenesis, it seemed, led to better memory formation.

While the function of newborn brain cells is not well understood, many researchers now believe that new cells help in memory formation, but not all memory formation — contextual memories that can get easily confused (like where you left the car keys).

We can encourage neurogenesis through diet, aerobic exercise, and brain exercise.

“We are closer to understanding how memories are truly formed and stored in the brain,” says Craig Stark, director of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine. “If we want to try to help get better memories, we’d darn well better know how the system works.”


Neurogenesis occurs in the hippocampus, a brain region important for learning and memory. The hippocampus encodes and prepares new memories for storage, then dispatches them to different parts of the brain. In 1998, scientists showed that the hippocampus produces thousands of new brain cells each month. The nursery for nerve cells is a peanut-sized region of the hippocampus called the dentate gyrus. Approximately 3 to 5 percent of the cells in the dentate gyrus are developing, says Fred Gage, a neuroscientist at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif.

Many scientists think brain cells produced by neurogenesis in the dentate gyrus are crucial for better memory formation. New nerve cells, “neuronal progenitor cells,” aren’t connected to the brain’s neural network. Over their first month, the new cells begin to mature and establish exploratory connections with the surrounding brain tissue, beginning to elongate and to look more like nerve cells in the rest of the brain.

When the new brain cells finish maturing they integrate into the rest of the hippocampus, where they remain for a lifetime. “Most of the dentate gyrus is formed after birth,” Gage says. “A lot of it is formed in the first four years of life. That’s when you’re getting your baseline of memories. Then a low level of neurogenesis persists.”

Better Memory

Gage and others hypothesize that these adult-born nerve cells assist in a particular kind of memory called pattern separation, which keeps similar experiences from overlapping.

“New neurons are helping to distinguish between events that are close to each other,” Gage says. “It’s like a bar code. You put the bar code of the [memory] into the dentate. It’s coded with lots of information.”

For better memory formation, the brain stores the context of the memory, says Raymond Kesner, a psychology professor at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. “If you try to remember a story, time and place will always be important.”

In experiments described in 2008 in Hippo­campus, Kesner’s team demonstrated that rats with a healthy dentate gyrus had a better memory for object locations than those with a disabled dentate gyrus. His experiments support the idea that neurogensis in the dentate gyrus helps the brain remember the context of a memory.

In 2010, in Hippocampus, Stark and his colleagues new neurons in the dentate gyrus of aged brains are relatively inactive or slow to make connections. In older tissue, the newborn nerve cells appear to require greater contrasts among images and experiences before reacting and capturing a memory. As people age, Stark says, “we seem to be less good about details and specifics.”

How To Improve Memory

Researchers have begun to pinpoint factors that decrease neurogenesis in the dentate — including stress, alcohol consumption and, according to a study in Neuroscience Letters in 2010, a high-fat diet. On the plus side physical activity and working memory brain training exercises can increase neurogenesis and lead to a better memory.

Henriette van Praag of the Neuroplasticity and Behavioral Unit at the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, Md. reported last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that mice that exercise regularly perform better in pattern separation tests.

Compounds in fruits, vegetables and herbs also appear to enhance the survival of new brain cells. Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish such as salmon and sardines, flavonoids found in non-green vegetables and berries, and curcumin, a common component of curry. (Epicatechin, from green tea and chocolate, doesn’t appear to promote the birth of neurons directly but does encourage existing neurons to sprout more connections to neighbors, improving memory. The effect is particularly strong when combined with exercise.)

And as MindSparke trainees know so well, brain training with intensive working memory exercises promotes neurogenesis and brain fitness, significantly boosting our memory and brain power.

Brain Training & Game Play – Activating Your Rat Brain

Monday, February 28th, 2011
shogi board - brain training

Shogi Board

To investigate the effects of long term training on the brain, Japanese researchers scanned the brains of expert and amateur Shogi players as they quickly sized up their next move. Shogi is a complex board game analogous to chess. The scientists were surprised to find that the experts tapped into brain regions typically lightly used in humans but more highly developed in mice and rats.

When forced to act quickly the experts relied on an overall assessment of the game board rather that a thorough analysis. Such mental resources weren’t available to the amateurs who lacked the years of specific brain training that frequent shogi games had provided the experts.

Professor Keiji Tanaka, a lead researcher on the project, said the area of the brain being used was in the basal ganglia region, one he did not associate with intelligence:

“The professional players started to use the parts of the brains that are well developed in mice and rats and not so well developed in primates, so the findings were a surprise – by becoming expert, shogi masters start to use all parts of the brain.”

These findings underscore the awareness that by application and dedication we can train or retrain our brains. It also points to the intriguing finding that by becoming expert in an activity we develop areas of the brain that are largely dormant — our rat brain, as it were. Acquiring such expertise develops our “big picture” aptitude, developing our intuition and ability to read a situation or circumstance quickly.

Brain Training Report – Martin – Stage 4, Seq 1, Session 7

Thursday, December 30th, 2010

Average n-back: 9.6

A big jump today after a brief period of non-training (busy time of year). On several blocks I felt very centered and focused, reaching n=11 for a couple of rounds. I meditated before today’s session.

brain training with mindsparke

Stage 4, Seq. 01, Session 07: Grid and Nines

More On The Abacus As Fun Brain Training

Wednesday, December 29th, 2010

Abacus or Soroban

Back in June I wrote about the revival of the abacus or soroban in Japan. This subject fascinates me in part I think because it reaffirms two appealing philosophies:

  1. The integration of mind and body. What we do informs the shape of our mental processes. Likewise what we think informs our physical being.
  2. Sometimes progress in one area leads to regress in another. The technological innovation that brought us the calculator robbed us of the valuable mental training that comes from regular mental arithmetic.

(As another example of #2 I was recently given a Chemex coffee maker — one can’t imagine a simpler coffee-making device, and yet for someone who values good-tasting coffee it outperforms electric coffee makers that tend to be vastly more complicated and expensive.)

Now NPR reports on the resurgence of the abacus in modern Japan. Advocates think it will help schoolchildren develop focus and improve their connection to the mathematical concepts being studied.

‘Silently, a third-grader named Sho Uchida races through a written worksheet of arithmetic problems — without the aid of his abacus … his fingers dancing across the page.

‘Hanaka Iwai says being able to conjure up and manipulate a mental abacus is a skill known as anzan.

Anzan enables you to visualize the beads in your head. … you can literally carry the device in your brain,” she says.

‘The system is so intuitive, teachers say, almost any child can master it in a matter of months.’

I like the punchline — “a matter of months.” To those of us who like to master things quickly, the idea of spending months on learning how to use an abacus sounds a little daunting — yet another confirmation that we need to cultivate these kinds of skills rather than curate them.

Act Your Brain Age?

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

brain training for actorsFollowing on from yesterday’s post -Mental Exercise Benefits Physical Mobility – today we have another example of the interaction between mind and body.

Actors who underwent ten half-hour sessions of neurofeedback training over a period of seven weeks improved their acting ability compared to actors who hadn’t had the neurofeedback training. (Acting quality was assessed qualitatively by acting professors and the students themselves.)

What fascinated me was the detail of the neurofeedback training. When I first came across the study I thought that the neurofeedback training would have focused on the act of performance. But the researchers instead showed the actors a simulated theater environment and asked them to control the stage lighting and crowd noise via electrodes connected to their heads.

The ability being trained then would seem to be control of “presence” and detached focus.

(This strikes me a somewhat similar to the attention and control, without over-thinking, of MindSparke’s training. One day it would be interesting to see whether brain training performance could be aided by the means of neurofeedback while training.)

Mind And Body – Mental Exercise Benefits Physical Mobility

Monday, November 8th, 2010

A study on the physical impact of computer-based mental exercise found that brain training led to a measurable (although not statistically significant) improvement in the mobility of a group of seniors.

Published in the Journal of Gerontology, the study of ten seniors showed an increase in normal-walking speed. A control group showed no improvement.

The study also looked at the ability to walk while speaking — which takes more concentration than walking without talking – the study subjects who used the computer program recorded notable improvement on their initial speeds. The control group has no improvement in walking speed.

What’s interesting about this study is the further evidence of the relationship between mental and physical activity. We tend to think about mental activity as something separate from physical activity.  But this conceptual division is, if not illusory, then at least deceptive. Every physical action, whether mindful or not, involves activity in the nervous system and the brain.

This finding about brain exercise and normal walking speed reminds me of a similar study showing that simply practicing a physical activity mentally (such as playing the piano) leads to improvement in the activity itself almost as great as if the practice had been physical.