Earlier this month, PsyBlog wrote a brief summary and synopsis of the current research findings for cognitive enhancers — you know, those things that are supposed to help us improve our minds and our memories. He looked at the commonly cited brain aids: brain training games, drugs, vitamins, medication and physical exercise.
And his conclusion isn’t all that surprising if you’ve kept up in this area over the past few years. Physical exercise is by far the most evidence-based intervention you can engage in (and it also happens to be the easiest and cheapest method).
That didn’t sit well with Alvaro Fernandez, a businessman who runs a site called “Sharp Brains” who took Jeremy to task for his post, but mainly for Jeremy’s audacity for suggesting that one method might have better research backing than another. Alvaro, of course, makes his living selling the idea of “cognitive enhancement” through his brain fitness consulting
programs, research reports, and speaking services to big business and other organizations. So anything that might step on his toes suggesting there isn’t a whole lot of science or research backing to such programs services is bound to get his attention (and a lengthy, rambling entry that doesn’t cite any research so much as testimonials, a marketer’s failsafe).
Mind Tweaks weighed in more on the side of Sharp Brains basically suggesting different strokes for different folks. Mind Tweaks is also focused on helping people cognitively enhance their brain, so again, the unspoken conflict of interest remains. (Tori Deaux, the author of Mind Tweaks, is also not a researcher nor psychologist.)
So while the idea of “tweaking” our minds to cognitive enhance ourselves to better, faster, stronger and such is appealing, PsyBlog hit the nail on the head in terms of putting these enhancements into proper research context. It’s all fine and good to talk about the “4 main pillars of cognitive health” or “finding the right balance” approach to one’s mind. But people should be clear they’re talking from a marketing or theoretical perspective — not a research-based one (where psychology and neuropsychology typically operate from).
Faith is a powerful thing. So while it’s fine to suggest the industry is moving faster than the research to back it up is, it’s quite a leap to suggest that an industry (and indeed it is an industry — a growing $225 million/year one at that) knows better than actual researchers with actual data. That’s precisely why history is littered with the remnants of inventions meant to “improve your mind” or “grow your memory” that did no such thing. Faith — or the “placebo effect,” if you will — can help people believe they are doing something to help themselves, and therefore they will feel helped. But until the research foundation has multiple, large-scale controlled studies in its pocket, many of these cognitive enhancement techniques are nothing more than faith-based beliefs in brain enhancement.
Jeremy’s conclusions at PsyBlog are right on:
Even though exercise is the current winner for enhancing cognition, this might change in the future. Maybe better drugs for enhancing brain function will be developed – possibly en route to improved treatments for conditions like Alzheimer’s. Or maybe studies on nutritional supplements, brain training software or particular forms of meditation may provide firmer evidence.
On current evidence exercise is clearly the best method for increasing useful everyday cognitive functioning. And in the future we may even have exercise regimes that are specifically targeted at enhancing cognitive function.
Indeed. Want to help yourself now for free? Take some advice from Michael Marsiske, an associate professor of clinical and health psychology at the University of Florida and a principal investigator in the ACTIVE study in this NPR interview:
“The advice that I think people could comfortably take from this,” Marsiske says, “is that if they challenge themselves to learn new things, including things that they might perceive as difficult in their later years, many older adults will not only achieve benefits from those challenges but those benefits will be long lasting.”
But other researchers say there’s a better way to look at brain health.
“One of the thoughts is that what’s good is to enter old age with as good a brain as possible,” says Margaret Gatz, a professor of psychology, gerontology and preventive medicine at the University of Southern California.
Scientists use the term “cognitive reserve.”
“This is a term that’s being used a lot now by dementia researchers,” says Gatz. “And this is referring to the idea that, as one becomes older and there’s inevitable biological changes to the brain — not just Alzheimer’s processes, but other biological changes — is there enough of a cushion that one can keep functioning just fine?”
In other words, do you already have enough brain power — or cognitive ability — in reserve to keep dementia at bay longer?
Gatz believes that you should start challenging yourself mentally when you’re younger, rather than waiting for old age to take Italian or piano lessons.
Exercise, keep your body healthy (which in turn keeps your brain healthy), and keep yourself challenged with doing something new or different regularly. It doesn’t have to be with special brain exercises or cognitive seminars or training. It’s simply doing the daily crossword or Soduko. It’s taking a walk every day, or bicycling, or going to the gym. It’s trying to figure out a different way to do something at work or in your life that will make things better or easier. It’s taking the longer, more arduous path in your journey, rather than the easy, expected one.
But at the end of the day, it’s really about simple, cheap exercise, as Sandra Aamodt, the editor in chief of Nature Neuroscience writes:
How might exercise help the brain? In people, fitness training slows the age-related shrinkage of the frontal cortex, which is important for executive function. In rodents, exercise increases the number of capillaries in the brain, which should improve blood flow, and therefore the availability of energy, to neurons. Exercise may also help the brain by improving cardiovascular health, preventing heart attacks and strokes that can cause brain damage. Finally, exercise causes the release of growth factors, proteins that increase the number of connections between neurons, and the birth of neurons in the hippocampus, a brain region important for memory. Any of these effects might improve cognitive performance, though it’s not known which ones are most important.
So instead of spending money on computer games or puzzles to improve your brain’s health, invest in a gym membership. Or just turn off the computer and go for a brisk walk.
I’m going for that walk!