Sunday, December 14, 2008

Brain Training - Why It Works

By Martin G. Walker

Last year my sister moved to Spain with her two young children. For my sister, the process of learning a new language has been slow and hard work, involving hours of dedicated study and instruction. But her children have absorbed not one but two dialects of Spanish as if by osmosis, and already switch effortlessly back and forth between their native and adopted tongues. Scientists now understand the neurological processes that account for the amazing plasticity of the child's brain. And this understanding lays the foundation for the exciting new field of brain training.

A child's brain produces large amounts of a protein known as BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). BDNF stimulates the brain's center of attention and memory formation. For children, the copious production of BDNF means that their brains are constantly ready to take in new information and form new brain structures.

Toward the end of the critical learning period, an adolescent's brain releases even greater quantities of BDNF, shutting down this ability to effortlessly absorb and retain new information. By adulthood it is important for the brain to begin to consolidate the information it has absorbed in the formative years. Closing off the critical period prevents our brains from becoming saturated with too much information, and facilitates decision-making and long-term focus.

As scientists have shown, however, the adult brain isn't hopelessly cut off from further growth and change. We can reactivate the absorption of new information by engaging in mental tasks that requires focus and attention. When these mental tasks also induce a sense of achievement or satisfaction, we can create the conditions for the growth of new nerve cells and plastic change.

Intense focus at a challenging task results in neurogenesis (new nerve cell growth) and neuroplasticity (rewiring of brain structure). If we activate these processes while training core brain functions (e.g., processing speed, memory, and problem-solving ability) we can strengthen and improve our mental ability.

The Three Building Blocks of Effective Brain Training

1. Focus

To activate the nucleus basalis we must exert considerable focus and attention. This stimulates the nucleus basalis to produce acetylcholine, which in turn instructs the brain to fix the memories being formed.

2. Challenge

Tackling a mental challenge that yields a sense of satisfaction or reward causes the brain to produce a second substance crucial to plastic change called dopamine.

3. Exercise of Core Brain Functions

Acetylcholine and dopamine together stimulate new cell growth (neurogenesis), creating the right conditions for change in the brain's function and structure (neuroplasticity). By simultaneously training core cognitive functions the cell growth and plastic change strengthen and improve those core functions.

Brain Training In Practice

All kinds of mental tasks produce some degree of neural growth, helping us stay sharp - learning a new language, solving puzzles, taking up a new career. But such incidental change isn't as directed and effective as that produced by some of the brain training exercises that scientists have designed.

A well designed brain training program improves cognitive ability using efficient and quantitatively verifiable exercises. The practical applications are many and varied: Learning specialists now work with brain training software to help reverse learning deficits; Senior centers offer brain training resources to their customers, helping to reverse memory loss and delay or prevent the onset of Alzheimer's symptoms or dementia; Schools have begun to introduce brain training as a way of optimizing children's academic study; And individuals have taken to brain training as a way to maintain and improve their mental agility, in some instances even capitalizing on the latest training programs as a way to increase fluid intelligence (problem-solving skills) - a goal once thought unattainable.

Still an emerging market, the brain training industry inevitably churns out some programs that are at best only moderately effective, and at worst pretty near useless. On the other hand, the better programs are founded on excellent science and produce reliable results.

Fortunately, a little due diligence on this front will pay dividends. First, check the scientific basis for the training exercises. It's a bad sign if the marketing material describes the science and benefits of the program in vague or general terms without spelling out what the training is designed to accomplish, and what specifically to expect in terms of improvement. And the vendor should tell you for how long and with what duration you should be training to achieve those gains.

It's perhaps equally important to remember that brain training requires something from us, too. Plastic change can't be had without diligence and stamina. To use the analogy of physical fitness, we can't expect to increase our brain power without breaking a mental sweat. If we are willing to make the investment, however, the rewards will be well worth the effort.

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