Brain Training - Exploiting Brain Plasticity

My five-year old son picks up new words and puts them to use as if they were so many pieces of Lego. By six years old a typical child has have a vocabulary of more than ten thousand words. A child's ability to absorb and master new information is a constant marvel. By contrast, adults find new learning a hard slog. The reason for this difference gives a clue to the lifelong ability to maintain and improve brain function.

The growing brain produces large quantities of a nerve-growth protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF. This protein activates the region of the brain responsible for attention and memory formation. This unstemmed BDNF production ensures that children pay attention to everything (except perhaps their parents!) readily absorbing new information and in the process forming new memories and brain structures.

In their late teenage years (the end of critical learning period), an adolescent's brain releases even greater quantities of BDNF, shutting down this ability to effortlessly absorb and retain new information. As adults we need to consolidate the information we've absorbed in our growing years. Closing off the critical period prevents us from becoming saturated with too much information, and facilitates decision-making and long-term focus.

But scientists have recently shown that the default "off" mode of the adult brain's attention center doesn't mean that we're resigned to a static brain, or, worse yet, a long, inevitable mental decline. As adults we can reactivate the learning center by engaging in activities that requires focus and attention. When these activities also produce a sense of accomplishment or satisfaction, we have the ingredients for neurogenesis and brain plasticity.

These are the goals of a good brain training program. Intense focus and challenge on a task that strengthens core brain functions. Our brains begin grow new nerve cells and restructure themselves to adapt to the new stimulus.

The Three Steps to Cognitive Improvement

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

When we feel challenged and rewarded the brain secretes dopamine (the 'happy' chemical).

3. Targeted Training

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.

Practical Applications of Brain Training

While a host of activities (card games, puzzles, learning a new skill) can catalyze neural growth and help us stay in good mental shape, these incidental benefits tend to be less pointed and dramatic than we can achieve with a scientifically designed and tested brain training program.

The right brain training software can strengthen core brain functions in a highly efficient, measurable and predictable way. This brings a slew of possibilities: Brain training is being used today for correcting learning dysfunctions, reversing the adverse effects of aging, helping to delay or prevent the onset of Alzheimer's symptoms or dementia, improving academic success, and for plain old self-improvement. Some training programs can even produce measurable increases in fluid intelligence or problem-solving ability - until recently believed to be impossible.

It's still so new that 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 brain training programs are founded on excellent science and produce reliable results.

Since committing to a program requires time and money it pays to check the scientific credentials of the training. What specifically is it designed to achieve? Has its efficacy been independently tested or proven? Does the vendor specify the degree of improvement you should expect? And does training follow a prescribed timeline with set duration and milestones?

And finally, we should remember that the critical ingredients for plastic change are focus and challenge. Just as we don't expect to stay physically fit without breaking a sweat, a truly effective brain training program requires our attention and effort. The rewards, however, can be worth every ounce of that investment.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Spam comment will be deleted...!!