The Science of Brain Training

Last year my sister moved to Spain with her two young children. At forty, the process of learning a new language has been arduous, involving hours of dedicated study and instruction. But, as if by osmosis, my niece and nephew have absorbed not one but two dialects of Spanish and switch between their native and adopted tongues without effort.  We’re so familiar with the sponge-like quality of a child’s brain as compared to an adult brain that we don’t even question it. But the remarkable biological processes at work in the critical period of learning give us the clue to maintaining adult brain fitness.

nucleus basalis - the brain's attention governor

nucleus basalis - the brain's attention governor

A child’s brain produces large amounts of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF. This substance stimulates the brain’s center of attention and memory formation, the nucleus basalis. The copious production of BDNF means that the child’s brain is constantly ready to take in new information and form new brain structures. Ironically, when we get frustrated that children aren’t paying attention to us, it’s because they’re paying so much attention to everything else!

In our late teens our bodies produce a lot more BDNF. This triggers the nucleus basalis to shut off the process of effortless learning.  From an evolutionary perspective this makes good sense. As adults we need to consolidate what we’ve learned and discriminate between important data and distractions.

On the other hand, the idea that the adult brain is hopelessly cut off from further growth and change, as we’ve always been led to believe, is a little depressing. But we now know that it just isn’t the case. Recent studies have proven that when we engage in tasks or activities that require focus and attention we reactivate the nucleus basalis, prompting the brain to absorb and retain new information and even stimulating the growth of new brain cells.

Known as neurogenesis and neuroplasticity the brain’s ability to grow new cells and rewire neural structures means that by exercising the brain in the right way we can improve cognitive ability. By stimulating the nucleus basalis with mental tasks that strengthen memory, processing speed, and problem-solving ability we can maintain and even improve those key mental functions.

The Three Steps to Brain Change

Step One – Focus & Attention

Activating the nucleus basalis takes considerable focus and attention. Concerted focus stimulates the nucleus basalis to produce acetylcholine, which in turn instructs the brain to fix the memories being formed.

Step Two – Challenge & Reward

A mental challenge that also yields a sense of satisfaction or reward causes the brain to produce dopamine, the second ingredient required for plastic change.

Step Three – Targeted Training

Acetylcholine and dopamine prompt the growth of new nerve cells in the dentate gyrus, and create conditions under which the brain can change. The way in which the brain grows and changes depends on what we’re doing to stimulate that growth. Training exercises that strengthen and improve core brain functions can generate lasting improvements in our mental ability.

Brain Training in Practice

Many everyday activities stimulate neural growth and help us stay mentally fit – studying a new language, tackling puzzles and brain teasers, learning a new skill, etc..  But such incidental change isn’t as directed and effective as that produced by a carefully designed brain training exercise.

A well-designed brain training program improves cognitive ability using efficient activities with measurable results. Already, the practical applications are many and varied: Learning specialists now use brain training software to help children reverse learning deficits; Senior centers offer brain training resources to their customers, reversing memory loss and delaying or preventing the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms and dementia; Progressive school systems have begun to introduce brain training to help optimize classroom study; And individuals have taken to brain training as a way to maintain and improve their mental agility.

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