Tag Archives: neuroplasticity

Brain Fitness In The 21st Century: 10 Priorities To Reinvent Brain Health In the Digital Age

Copyright © 2016 SharpBrains

The Times They Are a-Changin.

In a recent survey, 91% of those polled agreed with this statement: “Doctors should monitor cognitive health systematically, especially when prescribing new medicaments.”

This is important news, as anyone who has experienced negative side-effects, cognitive or otherwise, knows.

We need to upgrade our brain health system to reflect the realities, challenges and opportunities in the 21st century, in the midst of the Digital Age we live in.

Where should we start?

I recently had the opportunity to ask that question to a group of world-class scientists and technology pioneers, brainstorming around key challenges and opportunities to Reinvent Brain Health in the Digital Age. A number of highly stimulating conversations led to the following ten priorities:

1. Brain health for what: How can we better link brain health and other meaningful outcomes such as lifelong learning, workplace performance and resilience, general happiness and well-being?

2. Incorporate community into the brain health mix: What role should community and family members play, and how can technology aid their efforts; for example by providing access to medical records and easing communication with doctors and caregivers?

3. Expand monitoring of brain function: How will we effectively monitor (and self-monitor) brain function and health? Given strong agreement with “Doctors should monitor cognitive health systematically, especially when prescribing new medicaments,” what role can pharmaceutical companies and insurers play in making that happen?

4. Harness Big Data and machine learning: What role can artificial intelligence play in brain health, and how will we measure the brain health of AI-enhanced systems? How can we use AI symbiotically with the human part of the equation?

5. Accelerate scientific validation of digital medicine initiatives: What techniques and approaches, beyond randomized controlled trials, can help assess what works and what doesn’t, and accelerate the innovation process and help ensure proper adoption?

6. Mastering the digital toolkit: What are the Pros and Cons of the growing range of non-invasive neurotechnologies-cognitive training, meditation apps, virtual/ augmented reality, EEG, tDCS, ultrasound, and more.

7. Improve brain fitness literacy: How are we going to educate and empower everyone with essential knowledge and best practices, increasing the emphasis on enhancement and prevention?

8. Personalize brain health prevention and treatments: What kind of one-time or on-going brain/ mental health assessment can help pinpoint individual needs, and how can brain-computer interactions help create a bidirectional relationship between a person and the surrounding technology?

9. Invest in early brain development: How do we act on the research showing early childhood interventions improve brain health and alleviate downstream societal problems? What types of digital exposures help, and which ones hurt?

10. Engage non-medical funding sources: What is the most important (and well-funded) “low-hanging-fruit” in education, sports, the military, large corporations, where brain health innovation should be part of the solution, and how can scalable, digital tools become part of the conversation and budgets?

Asking the right questions is necessary to harness innovation the right way. What do you think of the ten priorities listed above? Would you suggest adding something else to the mix?

Alvaro Fernandez is the co-author of The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness. SharpBrains.com is a popular blog tracking the latest brain fitness and brain health tips, and offering fun brain teasers for adults to test and improve concentration and memory.

20 Must-Know Facts to Harness Brain Plasticity, Improve Brain Health and Delay Alzheimer’s Symptoms

Copyright © 2016 SharpBrains

June is Alzheimer’s & Brain Awareness Month, so let me share these 20 Must-Know Facts to Harness Neuroplasticity & Improve Brain Health that come from an analysis of hundreds of scientific and medical studies analyzed:

1. There is more than one “It” in “Use It or Lose It” — our performance depends on a variety of brain functions and cognitive skills, not just one (be it “attention” or “memory” or any other).

2. Genes do not determine the fate of our brains. Thanks to lifelong neuroplasticity, our lifestyles are as important as our genes-if not more- in how our brains grow and our minds evolve.

3. We need to pay more attention to Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs) to verify whether any intervention causes an effect, and under what specific circumstances — The media is doing quite a poor job, in our view, to educate the general public.

4. The largest recent RCT (the ongoing FINGER study) and a 2010 systematic review of all relevant RCTs provide useful guidance: First, they report a protective effect of social and cognitive engagement, physical exercise, and the Mediterranean diet. Second, the average benefits at the population level appear quite limited, so we need to have realistic expectations.

5. Physical exercise and increased fitness promote brain functioning through a variety of mechanisms, including increased brain volume, blood supply and growth hormone levels.

6. Cardiovascular exercise that gets the heart beating – from walking to skiing, tennis and basketball – seems to bring the greatest brain benefits; thirty to sixty minutes per day, three days a week, seems to be the best regimen.

7. Mental stimulation strengthens the connections between neurons (synapses), improving neuron survival and cognitive functioning. Mental stimulation also helps build cognitive reserve, helping the brain better cope with potential AD pathology.

8. Routine activities do not challenge the brain. Keeping up the challenge requires going to the next level of difficulty, or trying something new.

9. The only leisure activity that has been associated with reduced cognitive function is watching television.

10. Brain training can work, putting the “cells that fire together wire together” to good use, but available RCTs suggest some key conditions must be met to transfer to real-life benefits.

11. The brain needs a lot of energy: It extracts approximately 50% of the oxygen and 10% of the glucose from arterial blood.

12. The Mediterranean Diet, supplemented with olive oil and nuts, is associated with decreased risk of cognitive decline.

13. Moderate doses of caffeine increase alertness but there is no clear sustained lifetime health benefit (or harm).

14. Light-to-moderate alcohol consumption seems to lower the risk of dementia.

15. Taking “brain supplements” of any kind does not seem to boost cognitive function or reduce risks of cognitive decline or dementia, unless directed to address an identified deficiency.

16. The larger and the more complex a person’s social network is, the bigger the amygdala (which plays a major role in our behavior and motivation). There is no clear evidence to date on whether “online” relationships are fundamentally different from “offline” ones in this regard.

17. Chronic stress reduces and can even inhibit neurogenesis. Memory and general mental flexibility are impaired by chronic stress.

18. There is increasing evidence that meditation and biofeedback can successfully teach users to self-regulate physiological stress responses.

19. We will not have a Magic Pill or General Solution to solve all our cognitive challenges any time soon, so a holistic multi-pronged approach is recommended, centered around nutrition, stress management, and both physical and mental exercise.

20. Having said that, no size fits all, so it’s critical to understand and address individual needs, priorities and starting points.

Now, remember that what counts in terms of brain health is not reading this article, or any other, but practicing some healthy behaviors every day until small steps become internalized habits. Revisit the fact above that really grabbed your attention…and make a decision to try something new this summer!

Alvaro Fernandez is the co-author of The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness, recently featured as one of the Best Books on Brain Fitness. SharpBrains.com is the leading clearinghouse website tracking brain fitness information and programs, combined with brain teasers for adults to challenge your brain.