Consumer & Behavioral Science Consulting

Brain Fitness

According to wikipedia,

The term brain fitness reflects a hypothesis that cognitive abilities can be maintained or improved by exercising the brain, in analogy to the way physical fitness is improved by exercising the body.

So what is this? Is it a new fad? Can you really increase your brain power through exercise? Can you really offset cognitive decline, like with aging? If you don’t use it, can you really lose it?

We’ve seen the commercials, Luminosity and the like, advertising that using their packages and programs can improve memory, cognitive performance, and prevent degradation.

But is there any truth to it?

Interestingly, this has been the subject of debate among scientists. We know that cognitive ability decreases with age. And we know that repetition can strengthen or change connections in the brain, for example in habituation or sensitization. A great example of this can be seen in the classic Pavlovian experiment (classical conditioning).

The conditioned stimulus or CS, comes to signal the occurrence of a second stimulus, the unconditioned stimulus or US. (A stimulus is a factor that causes a response in an organism.) The conditioned response is the learned response to the previously neutral stimulus. The US is usually a biologically significant stimulus such as food or pain that elicits a response from the start; this is called the unconditioned response or UR. The CS usually produces no particular response at first, but after conditioning it elicits the conditioned response or CR.

Sound complicated? Let’s revisit the origin of this idea: During his research on the physiology of digestion in dogs, Pavlov noticed that, rather than simply salivating in the presence of food, the dogs began to salivate in the presence of the lab technician who normally fed them. Pavlov called this anticipatory salivation psychic secretion. From this observation he predicted that, if a particular stimulus in the dog’s surroundings was present when the dog was given food, then this stimulus would become associated with food and cause salivation on its own. In his initial experiment, Pavlov used a bell to call the dogs to their food and, after a few repetitions, the dogs started to salivate in response to the bell. Pavlov called the bell the conditioned (or conditional) stimulus (CS) because its effect depended on its association with food. He called the food the unconditioned stimulus (US) because its effect did not depend on previous experience. Likewise, the response to the CS was the conditioned response (CR) and that to the US was the unconditioned response (UR). The timing between the presentation of the CS and US is integral to facilitating the conditioned response. Pavlov found that the shorter the interval between the bell’s ring and the appearance of the food, the more quickly the dog learned the conditioned response and the stronger it was.

Think of how your cat comes running at the sound of a can being opened. My cat now runs an meows when I open a certain cabinet. That certain cabinet is now an unconditioned stimulus and the meowing is the response. The connection between the sound and the reaction is now hardwired and automatic for her… learning. Plasticity. Training.

But one could argue that food is easy. That’s a natural response and an important signal. But can memory games, puzzles or videos improve cognition?

A study published this week in Nature, led by neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley of the University of California, San Francisco, shows that if a game is tailored to a precise cognitive deficit or for a specific purpose, like multitasking in older people, it can be effective.

A brain training race car game called NeuroRacer was tested for helping older people improve their cognitive ability to multi-task. This racing game is a three-dimensional video game in which players steer a car along a winding, hilly road with their left thumb, while keeping an eye out for signs that randomly pop up. If the sign is a particular shape and colour, players have to shoot it down using a finger on their right hand. This multitasking exercise, says Gazzaley, draws on a mix of cognitive skills just as real life does — such as attention focusing, task switching and working memory (the ability to temporarily hold multiple pieces of information in the mind).

As discussed in Scientific American,

Gazzaley and his colleagues first recruited around 30 participants for each of six decades of life, from the 20s to the 70s, and confirmed that multitasking skills as measured by the game deteriorated linearly with age. They then recruited 46 participants aged 60–85 and put them through a 4-week training period with a version of NeuroRacer that increased in difficulty as the player improved…

After training, subjects had improved so much that they achieved higher scores than untrained 20-year-olds, and the skill remained six months later without practice.

The scientists also conducted a battery of cognitive tests on the participants before and after training. Certain cognitive abilities that were not specifically targeted by the game improved and remained improved — such as working memory and sustained attention. Both skills are important for daily tasks, from reading a newspaper to cooking a meal…

— and the effect seems to carry over to tasks in everyday life and is still there after six months. patterns of brain activity change as those cognitive skills improve.

So it seems this new budding brain fitness industry may be promising after all. In the future, Gazzaley plans to develop games to improve cognitive skills in other groups, including people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or depression.

4 comments on “Brain Fitness

  1. Tony
    September 5, 2013

    “…if a game is tailored to a precise cognitive deficit or for a specific purpose, like multitasking in older people, it can be effective.”

    Cardiovascular activity works better and is available to everyone without buying fancy electronic toys. I have several posts on the benefits of cardio exercise on creating new neurotransmitters in the brain.

    • nerdoscientist
      September 5, 2013

      Creating new or up-regulating? Which nt’s? Feel free to link your posts.

  2. Tony
    September 6, 2013

    Here is my Page on the brain and exercise -

  3. Pingback: Does Luminosity Work? | Boosted Memory

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