mental stimulation

A little stress can make brains sharper

While it’s well-established that chronic stress has all sorts of harmful effects, including on memory and cognition, the judgment on brief bouts of acute stress has been more equivocal. There is a certain amount of evidence that brief amounts of stress can be stimulating rather than harmful, and perhaps even necessary if we are to reach our full potential.

04/2013

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Why learning gets harder as we get older

February, 2013

A mouse study shows that weakening unwanted or out-of-date connections is as important as making new connections, and that neurological changes as we age reduces our ability to weaken old connections.

A new study adds more support to the idea that the increasing difficulty in learning new information and skills that most of us experience as we age is not down to any difficulty in acquiring new information, but rests on the interference from all the old information.

Memory is about strengthening some connections and weakening others. A vital player in this process of synaptic plasticity is the NMDA receptor in the hippocampus. This glutamate receptor has two subunits (NR2A and NR2B), whose ratio changes as the brain develops. Children have higher ratios of NR2B, which lengthens the time neurons talk to each other, enabling them to make stronger connections, thus optimizing learning. After puberty, the ratio shifts, so there is more NR2A.

Of course, there are many other changes in the aging brain, so it’s been difficult to disentangle the effects of this changing ratio from other changes. This new study genetically modified mice to have more NR2A and less NR2B (reflecting the ratio typical of older humans), thus avoiding the other confounds.

To the researchers’ surprise, the mice were found to be still good at making strong connections (‘long-term potentiation’ - LTP), but instead had an impaired ability to weaken existing connections (‘long-term depression’ - LTD). This produces too much noise (bear in mind that each neuron averages 3,000 potential points of contact (i.e., synapses), and you will see the importance of turning down the noise!).

Interestingly, LTD responses were only abolished within a particular frequency range (3-5 Hz), and didn’t affect 1Hz-induced LTD (or 100Hz-induced LTP). Moreover, while the mice showed impaired long-term learning, their short-term memory was unaffected. The researchers suggest that these particular LTD responses are critical for ‘post-learning information sculpting’, which they suggest is a step (hitherto unknown) in the consolidation process. This step, they postulate, involves modifying the new information to fit in with existing networks of knowledge.

Previous work by these researchers has found that mice genetically modified to have an excess of NR2B became ‘super-learners’. Until now, the emphasis in learning and memory has always been on long-term potentiation, and the role (if any) of long-term depression has been much less clear. These results point to the importance of both these processes in sculpting learning and memory.

The findings also seem to fit in with the idea that a major cause of age-related cognitive decline is the failure to inhibit unwanted information, and confirm the importance of keeping your mind actively engaged and learning, because this ratio is also affected by experience.

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More support for value of cognitive activities in fighting cognitive decline in old age

September, 2012

Two recent conference presentations add to the evidence for the benefits of ‘brain training’, and of mental stimulation, for holding back age-related cognitive decline.

My recent reports on brain training for older adults (see, e.g., Review of working memory training programs finds no broader benefit; Cognitive training shown to help healthy older adults; Video game training benefits cognition in some older adults) converge on the idea that cognitive training can indeed be beneficial for older adults’ cognition, but there’s little wider transfer beyond the skills being practiced. That in itself can be valuable, but it does reinforce the idea that the best cognitive training covers a number of different domains or skill-sets. A new study adds little to this evidence, but does perhaps emphasize the importance of persistence and regularity in training.

The study involved 59 older adults (average age 84), of whom 33 used a brain fitness program 5 days a week for 30 minutes a day for at least 8 weeks, while the other group of 26 were put on a waiting list for the program. After two months, both groups were given access to the program, and both were encouraged to use it as much or as little as they wanted. Cognitive testing occurred before the program started, at two months, and at six months.

The first group to use the program used the program on average for 80 sessions, compared to an average 44 sessions for the wait-list group.

The higher use group showed significantly higher cognitive scores (delayed memory test; Boston Naming test) at both two and six months, while the lower (and later) use group showed improvement at the end of the six month period, but not as much as the higher use group.

I’m afraid I don’t have any more details (some details of the training program would be nice) because it was a conference presentation, so I only have access to the press release and the abstract. Because we don’t know exactly what the training entailed, we don’t know the extent to which it practiced the same skills that were tested. But we may at least add it to the evidence that you can improve cognitive skills by regular training, and that the length/amount of training (and perhaps regularity, since the average number of sessions for the wait-list group implies an average engagement of some three times a week, while the high-use group seem to have maintained their five-times-a-week habit) matters.

Another interesting presentation at the conference was an investigation into mental stimulating activities and brain activity in older adults.

In this study, 151 older adults (average age 82) from the Rush Memory and Aging Project answered questions about present and past cognitive activities, before undergoing brain scans. The questions concerned how frequently they engaged in mentally stimulating activities (such as reading books, writing letters, visiting a library, playing games) and the availability of cognitive resources (such as books, dictionaries, encyclopedias) in their home, during their lifetime (specifically, at ages 6, 12, 18, 40, and now).

Higher levels of cognitive activity and cognitive resources were also associated with better cognitive performance. Moreover, after controlling for education and total brain size, it was found that frequent cognitive activity in late life was associated with greater functional connectivity between the posterior cingulate cortex and several other regions (right orbital and middle frontal gyrus, left inferior frontal gyrus, hippocampus, right cerebellum, left inferior parietal cortex). More cognitive resources throughout life was associated with greater functional connectivity between the posterior cingulate cortex and several other regions (left superior occipital gyrus, left precuneus, left cuneus, right anterior cingulate, right middle frontal gyrus, and left inferior frontal gyrus).

Previous research has implicated a decline in connectivity with the posterior cingulate cortex in mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease.

Cognitive activity earlier in life was not associated with differences in connectivity.

The findings provide further support for the idea “Use it or lose it!”, and suggests that mental activity protects against cognitive decline by maintaining functional connectivity in important neural networks.

Reference: 

Miller, K.J. et al. 2012. Memory Improves With Extended Use of Computerized Brain Fitness Program Among Older Adults. Presented August 3 at the 2012 convention of the American Psychological Association.

Han, S.D. et al. 2012. Cognitive Activity and Resources Are Associated With PCC Functional Connectivity in Older Adults. Presented August 3 at the 2012 convention of the American Psychological Association.

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'Exergames' may provide greater cognitive benefit for older adults

February, 2012

An intriguing pilot study finds that regular exercise on a stationary bike enhanced with a computer game-type environment improves executive function in older adults more than ordinary exercise on a stationary bike.

We know that physical exercise greatly helps you prevent cognitive decline with aging. We know that mental stimulation also helps you prevent age-related cognitive decline. So it was only a matter of time before someone came up with a way of combining the two. A new study found that older adults improved executive function more by participating in virtual reality-enhanced exercise ("exergames") that combine physical exercise with computer-simulated environments and interactive videogame features, compared to the same exercise without the enhancements.

The Cybercycle Study involved 79 older adults (aged 58-99) from independent living facilities with indoor access to a stationary exercise bike. Of the 79, 63 participants completed the three-month study, meaning that they achieved at least 25 rides during the three months.

Unfortunately, randomization was not as good as it should have been — although the researchers planned to randomize on an individual basis, various technical problems led them to randomize on a site basis (there were eight sites), with the result that the cybercycle group and the control bike group were significantly different in age and education. Although the researchers took this into account in the analysis, that is not the same as having groups that match in these all-important variables. However, at least the variables went in opposite directions: while the cybercycle group was significantly younger (average 75.7 vs 81.6 years), it was significantly less educated (average 12.6 vs 14.8 years).

Perhaps also partly off-setting the age advantage, the cybercycle group was in poorer shape than the control group (higher BMI, glucose levels, lower physical activity level, etc), although these differences weren’t statistically significant. IQ was also lower for the cybercycle group, if not significantly so (but note the high averages for both groups: 117.6 vs 120.6). One of the three tests of executive function, Color Trails, also showed a marked group difference, but the large variability in scores meant that this difference was not statistically significant.

Although participants were screened for disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and functional disability, many of both groups were assessed as having MCI — 16 of the 38 in the cybercycle group and 14 of the 41 in the control bike group.

Participants were given cognitive tests at enrolment, one month later (before the intervention began), and after the intervention ended. The stationary bikes were identical for both groups, except the experimental bike was equipped with a virtual reality display. Cybercycle participants experienced 3D tours and raced against a "ghost rider," an avatar based on their last best ride.

The hypothesis was that cybercycling would particularly benefit executive function, and this was borne out. Executive function (measured by the Color Trails, Stroop test, and Digits Backward) improved significantly more in the cybercycle condition, and indeed was the only cognitive task to do so (other cognitive tests included verbal fluency, verbal memory, visuospatial skill, motor function). Indeed, the control group, despite getting the same amount of exercise, got worse at the Digits Backward test, and failed to show any improvement on the Stroop test.

Moreover, significantly fewer cybercyclists progressed to MCI compared to the control group (three vs nine).

There were no differences in exercise quantity or quality between the two groups — which does argue against the idea that cyber-enhanced physical activity would be more motivating. However, the cybercycling group did tend to comment on their enjoyment of the exercise. While the enjoyment may not have translated into increased activity in this situation, it may well do so in a longer, less directed intervention — i.e. real life.

It should also be remembered that the intervention was relatively short, and that other cognitive tasks might take longer to show improvement than the more sensitive executive function. This is supported by the fact that levels of the brain growth factor BDNF, assessed in 30 participants, showed a significantly greater increase of BDNF in cybercyclists.

I should also emphasize that the level of physical exercise really wasn't that great, but nevertheless the size of the cybercycle's effect on executive function was greater than usually produced by aerobic exercise (a medium effect rather than a small one).

The idea that activities that combine physical and mental exercise are of greater cognitive benefit than the sum of benefits from each type of exercise on its own is not inconsistent with previous research, and in keeping with evidence from animal studies that physical exercise and mental stimulation help the brain via different mechanisms. Moreover, I have an idea that enjoyment (in itself, not as a proxy for motivation) may be a factor in the cognitive benefits derived from activities, whether physical or mental. Mere speculation, derived from two quite separate areas of research: the idea of “flow” / “being in the zone”, and the idea that humor has physiological benefits.

Of course, as discussed, this study has a number of methodological issues that limit its findings, but hopefully it will be the beginning of an interesting line of research.  

Reference: 

[2724] Anderson-Hanley, C., Arciero P. J., Brickman A. M., Nimon J. P., Okuma N., Westen S. C., et al.
(2012).  Exergaming and Older Adult Cognition.
American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 42(2), 109 - 119.

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Mental activity may slow cognitive decline initially, but speed up dementia later

October, 2010

Another study has come out suggesting that the advantage of mental stimulation is to delay cognitive decline, but at the cost of faster decline later (it’s still a good bargain).

A long-running study involving 1,157 healthy older adults (65+) who were scored on a 5-point scale according to how often they participated in mental activities such as listening to the radio, watching television, reading, playing games and going to a museum, has found that this score is correlated to the rate of cognitive decline in later years.

Some 5 ½ years after this initial evaluation, 395 (34%) were found to have mild cognitive impairment and 148 (13%) to have Alzheimer’s. Participants were then tested at 3-yearly intervals for the next 6 years. The rate of cognitive decline in those without cognitive impairment was reduced by 52% for each point on the cognitive activity scale, but for those with Alzheimer's disease, the average rate of decline per year increased by 42% for each point on the cognitive activity scale. Rate of decline was unrelated to earlier cognitive activity in those with MCI (presumably they were at the balance point).

This is not terribly surprising when you think of it, if you assume that the benefit of mental stimulation is to improve your brain function so that it can better cope with the damage happening to it. But eventually it reaches the point where it can no longer compensate for that damage because it is so overwhelming.

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