Can Boomers’ Brains Be Saved?

There’s a lot of marketing being done for ‘brain fitness’ devices and methods, and of course there’s big bucks to be made when your target market is baby boomers.

Interesting conversation going on between a few blogs on this topic. At Psych Central summing up a post at PsyBlog, asserts that the most evidence-based cognitive enhancer is exercise. PsyBlog‘s post is a little longer, and really worth a look. There’s also a thoughtful retort, at SharpBrains, a site that markets tools for cognitive enhancement.

[P.S. Alvaro at SharpBrains has commented on this post and added additional links for further information on this topic. See Comments below.]

Part of what’s being argued is the value of evidence-based research vs. speculation about the effects of certain technologies or treatments, often based on some science to begin with. For some of the methods mentioned it’s quite difficult to isolate the effects via research (say, for instance, in meditation).

Each of these posts touch upon some interesting ideas about what might minimize the onset of Alzheimers or dementia — a concept known as the “cognitive reserve”. In other words, if you’ve spent an active, engaged life, you’ve got more “buffer” against these afflictions. Just a theory.

Here are some of the opinions from the PsyBlog post:

On computer programs:

Side-effects are probably limited to repetitive strain injury and a depleted wallet.

On a cognitive enhancers:

Amongst the chemical cognitive enhancers Modafinil is currently fashionable for grown-ups. But is it really that much better than caffeine? This study and this study suggest that in warding off sleep Modafinil is no more effective than caffeine – and caffeine is legal and readily available. Probably better to stick to tea or coffee.

On meditation:

Meditation still has to be considered unproven as a cognitive enhancer but it probably won’t do you any harm, plus it’s free.

And finally, on exercise:

The evidence for exercise boosting cognitive function is head-and-shoulders above that for brain training, drugs, nutritional supplements and meditation. Scientifically, on the current evidence, exercise is the best way to enhance your cognitive function. And as for its side-effects: yes there is the chance of an injury but exercise can also reduce weight, lower the chance of dementia, improve mood and lead to a longer life-span. Damn those side-effects!

And here are some thoughts from the SharpBrains retort:

What about traders, bankers or consultants who already frequent the gym often, but need help with stress management/ emotional self-regulation in order to remain “cool” when they need to? Would you tell them “Please stop trading/ that Board meeting when things get difficult, leave your desk/ room for 30-40 minutes to take a quick run, and everything will be fine when you come back”. Or would they better learn the cognitive skills needed to manage stress real-time via biofeedback or meditation, for example.

Third, as you point out, there are studies on specific groups of people (add/ adhd, dyslexia, stroke/ TBI) where well-directed cognitive exercise has shown an effect in well-designed trials, whereas physical exercise, to my knowledge, hasn’t to the same degree. We are talking about over 25 million individuals in the US in those 3 categories alone. What do you tell them?….

Fifth, while physical exercise has shown clear value in improving some cognitive abilities, such as some executive functions, it hasn’t show comparable value in others, such as information processing or memory. Which is one crucial reason why, in my view, looking for cure-alls will probably prove elusive.

New Blog: Psychology Today

Mindhacks notes the launching Psychology Today’s formidable blog:

Popular psychology magazine Psychology Today have launched their own blog network with some of the biggest names in psychology, psychiatry and philosophy of mind regularly writing for it.

As a magazine, PsyToday has had a long reputation for being a bit populist and light on what most psychologists what actually think of as psychology.

That seems to have been changing in recent years and there’s been a consistent increase in the quality of the articles.

Depression Linked to Everything

Furious Seasons June 18 entry points out:

Depression Linked to Absolutely Everything, Solutions Elusive. A new study is out today in JAMA asserting a link between type 2 diabetes and depression and vice-versa. The study now joins reams of studies in recent years–many of them by non-psychiatrists, just to be clear–that link depression with seemingly every human malady and shortcoming. Heart disease, cancer, obesity, chronic pain, racism, poverty, smoking and so on have all been tied in with depression, locked in the kind of bio-psychological feedback loop that has doctors calling for depression screening and the inevitable push for treatment with anti-depressants (which themselves have been linked with diabetes causation in some studies just to make things even more confusing) and me scratching my head over what it all means. Because it does all mean something. And maybe nothing all at once.

Twenty-Fifth Edition of Brain Blogging Carnival

Brain Blogger’s 35th edition of the Brain Blogging Carnival. It includes these links. All the descriptions are straight from Brain Blogger. There are about 15 other interesting stories to delve into, but here are a few:

Read or Die! presents Increase your Brainpower now!:

As I was reading the January issue of Reader’s Digest mag I found these tips on how to increase brainpower. Check them out; these might help you prepare yourself before taking an exam or before taking the MENSA test.

Sharp Brain presents Cognitive and Emotional Development Through Play:

Play is rapidly disappearing from our homes, our schools, and our neighborhoods. Over the last two decades alone, children have lost eight hours of free, unstructured, and spontaneous play a week. More than 30,000 schools in the United States have eliminated recess to make more time for academics.

Read or Die! presents Increase your Brainpower now!:

As I was reading the January issue of Reader’s Digest mag I found these tips on how to increase brainpower. Check them out; these might help you prepare yourself before taking an exam or before taking the MENSA test.

The Next 45 Years presents 30 True Things You Need to Know Now:

If the map doesn’t agree with the ground, the map is wrong. We are given mental maps as children. Our parents and other adults tell us what is right and what is wrong – sometimes they don’t always get it, well, right. Now as adults, when we find the maps we have relied on for so long can get us lost, we need to recalibrate and create more reliable guides based on what we now know to be true and where we want to go.

Portrait of Dissociative Identity Disorder

Everyone Needs Therapy has posted (June 18th) a disturbing, but informative, portrait of Dissociative Identity Disorder. Once known as Multiple Personality Disorder. Almost invariable the person diagnosed has suffered severe sexual trauma, often at the hands of a parent.

Well, hopefully it doesn’t apply to you, Dissociative Identity Disorder (D.I.D.)

But it might. We used to call it Multiple Personality Disorder. Some people think this label applies to Schizophrenia, but because you read this blog, you know the difference.

People who suffer from Schizophrenia may hear voices, but they don’t usually have multiple personalities. These are both Axis I disorders, by the way, not personality disorders (Axis II).

And this is not Depersonalization Disorder, either, which is getting some press because Adam Duritz of Counting Crows (a popular rock band) is said to have it. (Read Dr. Deb). Depersonalization Disorder features persistent or recurrent experiences of feeling detached from one’s mind or body, as if watching the self as an outside observer.

Brain Scan or Brain Scam?

Marketing neuroscience to the public. Daniel Carlat casts a skeptical glance, in Wired, on some potentially exciting new brain scanning technology. He’s not against neuroscience or brain scans, but cautious about the way these new technologies are being marketed to the public. The title of the piece: “Brain Scans as Mind Readers: Don’t Believe the Hype”. Here’s an excerpt:

I’m in Newport Beach, California, undergoing the $3,300 Amen Clinic evaluation. The price includes two Spect scans and a series of clinical interviews. At the end I’ll get a report on my mental health, along with recommendations about lifestyle changes, supplements, and medications — a prescription for a “better brain.” It’s an alluring prospect, but the approach is still viewed with some suspicion by mainstream psychiatrists. Not that serious scientists aren’t interested in taking pictures of the brain — in fact, journals churn out hundreds of brain-imaging articles each month. It’s just that we haven’t quite figured out what these pictures mean. Are we really seeing the mind in action, or are we allowing ourselves to be seduced by images that may actually tell us very little?

Carlat concludes:

The next day, I’m back at my office. I see my patients, listen to their troubles, try to understand what drives their suffering, and prescribe my nostrums. I deal in brain trouble, and meaningful pictures of what is going on behind their pained expressions would aid my work immeasurably. After my last patient, I pull out Amen’s snapshots of my own brain. My journey through the land of functional neuroimaging has helped me to understand how spectacularly meaningless these images are likely to be.

Most neuromarketers are using these scans as a way of sprinkling glitter over their products, so that customers will be persuaded that the pictures are giving them a deeper understanding of their mind. In fact, imaging technologies are still in their infancy. And while overenthusiastic practitioners may try to leapfrog over the science, real progress, which will take decades, will be made by patient and methodical researchers, not by entrepreneurs looking to make a buck.

Self Esteem Run Amok

From a recent (via Ken Pope’s listserv) Houston Chronicle story on self esteem.

As Dr. Jean Twenge, author of the book Generation Me, points out, most self-esteem programs encourage kids to feel good about themselves for no particular reason.

Here’s the important finding from a self-esteem study:

Starting in the mid-1990s, a team led by psychologist Carol Dweck did a series of experiments on fifth-graders, who were divided into two groups. In the first group, students were praised for their intelligence — an innate trait unrelated to performance. In the second group, students were praised for their effort and good behavior. The children in the second group performed better and were more likely to attempt difficult tasks — probably because their teachers had encouraged them to work hard, rather than constantly telling them how brilliant they were.

Where Does Brain Become Mind?

Or is there a difference? This remains a heated discussion in cognitive sciences, neuroscience, philosophy. No answer in sight really. But here’s a snapshot of the complexity of your brain. Taken from Daniel Carlat’s piece in Wired:

A typical brain contains 100 billion neurons, each of which makes electrical connections, or synapses, with up to 10,000 other neurons. That means a quadrillion synapses to keep track of at any given time — about the number of people on 150,000 Earths. Somehow, in the midst of this frenetic electrical activity, something called “mind” emerges.

A Blog For the Week: The Neurocritic

A blog of note: The Neurocritic. Just another great blog that keeps an eye on science and trends in scientific thought.

The full name of the blog is: The Neurocritic: Deconstructing the most sensationalistic recent findings in Human Brain Imaging, Cognitive Neuroscience, and Psychopharmacology. Neurocritic seems to specialize in keeping the “bio” part of biopsychosocial in its proper place.

Recent posts include, A Brain is Worth A Thousand Words (June 7):

Brain images are believed to have a particularly persuasive influence on the public perception of research on cognition. Three experiments are reported showing that presenting brain images with articles summarizing cognitive neuroscience research resulted in higher ratings of scientific reasoning for arguments made in those articles

Another post: Oh, great. Now we know what the right parahippocampal gyrus does. (June 3)

There was nothing very interesting in Katherine P. Rankin’s study of sarcasm — at least, nothing worth your important time. All she did was use an M.R.I. to find the place in the brain where the ability to detect sarcasm resides. But then, you probably already knew it was in the right parahippocampal gyrus.

Blog carnival Encephalon.

The Neurocritic also features, as of May 27th, the 46th inception of the blog carnival Encephalon, a neuroscience blog carnival. The carnival includes:

The persistence of racism even among the well-intentioned

The Neurocritic has a past post, Present Tense, that reviews the literature on neuroimaging studies of mindfulness-based meditation.

Next, Vaughan from Mind Hacks writes about the rare phenomenon of ‘supernumerary phantom limbs’ in Phantom extra limbs.

Next up are Brain Games or Drugs for Cognitive Enhancement, written by Sharp Brains guest columnist Pascale Michelon, Ph.D. She discusses the exciting recent finding by Jaeggi et al. (2008): Improving Fluid Intelligence With Training on Working Memory. It’s a growing field.

Speaking of which, Dr. Shock writes a critical piece about the pitfalls of supportive psychotherapy in Supportive Psychotherapy mostly Novice Pilots Flying In The Dark Without Maps.

That last one wins for best post title — along with doing a nice job of describing some therapeutic technique, comes to the shocking conclusion that doing psychotherapy actually requires training, skills, and patience.