Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Social Activity Improves Cognitive Function

Being a hermit, at any age, may be detri-mental to your cognitive function. A new study at the University of Michigan, suggests that social interaction improves memory and cognitive function. In fact socializing proved to be just as effective as mental exercises in improving memory retention and intellectual performance. Conversely, they believe that social isolation may have a negative effect on cognitive function.

The first study involved participants aged 24 to 96. The participants were asked about their level of social interaction with friends and family, how often they talked on the phone or got together. They were then given a mini mental exam - a widely used test that measures knowledge of personal information and current events and that also includes a simple test of working memory.

The higher the level of participants' social interaction, researchers found, the better their cognitive functioning. This relationship was reliable for all age groups, from the youngest through the oldest.

Researchers conducted a second experiment involving only college students. The students were divided into three groups and participated in one of three activities before an examination. One group discussed a social issue for ten minutes, the second group did a reading comprehension test and a crossword puzzle and the third group watched ten minutes of Seinfeld. All three groups then took two tests to measure working memory and mental processing speed.

"We found that short-term social interaction lasting for just 10 minutes boosted participants' intellectual performance as much as engaging in so-called 'intellectual' activities for the same amount of time," Ybarra said.

"To our knowledge, this experiment represents the only causal evidence showing that social interaction directly affects memory and mental performance in a positive way."

Watching Seinfeld did not improve cognitive function

After reading about these results, I wondered whether the researchers considered including online social interaction. With an increasing number of people experiencing much of their social interaction online, it would be interesting to see if it was effective in staving off cognitive decline or if it had less effect or no effect compared with real life social interaction.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Brain Controls Inflammatory Response

It was an 11-month old girl, burned over 75% of her body by boiling water that gave Dr. Kevin Tracey an insight into why it was that the body sometimes turned on itself. The life-changing experience of caring for this little girl, who lost her fight for life to severe sepsis, that sent Dr. Tracey into research that led him to find none other that the human brain to be the culprit.

Dr. Tracy, of The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, discovered that the brain communicates directly with the immune system, sending the commands that control the body's inflammatory response in cases of infection and autoimmune disorders.

According to Tracy, the vagus nerve "talks" directly to the immune system through acetycholine, a neurochemical. Dr.Tracey has begun clinical trials to test his theory that stimulating the vagus nerve might block the inflammatory response to diseases, including sepsis. The vagus nerve originates in the brainstem and continues down to the heart and abdomen. Tracey wants to know if adjusting the brain's acetycholine system could control the inflammatory response.

Dr. Tracey has written a book called Fatal Sequence: The Killer Within, that tells the story of the little girl's fight for life, why she lost it and how it spurred him on to research that may lead to greater understanding of the brain's role in severe sepsis.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Video Game Changes Social Perspectives

There has been a lot of concern about violent video games and the effects they have on the young people who play them. But at McGill University, researchers have developed a video game that aims to train people to change their perception of social threats and boost self-confidence in a healthier way.

The game, called The Matrix, is designed to train players how to focus more on positive feedback and to avoid being distracted or deterred by slights and criticism in social situations. Our perceptons of social situations accounts for a significant part of our daily stress.

The game has even been shown to lower levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol. People who played a game which involved finding the one smiling face in a display of neutral or frowning ones and clicking on it, were found to have learned to focus on more positive aspects of social situations. The players in the study, employees of a call center, had their stress and self-esteem levels assessed daily using questionnaires and saliva analysis to measure cortisol levels. After playing the game for one week, there was a 17 percent reduction in cortisol levels compared to a control group that did not play the smiling faces game.

The game led to the creation of MindHabits Trainer, a game that is scheduled to be released this month. You can also preview and play the game at their website. The game is interactive in that it requires you complete "trackers" every time you play the game, to measure how much quicker your responses are to the positive images. You can also purchase the video game from the site.

Go give it a try at MindHabits.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Think Standing on Your Head

The headlines declare "Standing on your head helps you think"! Based on a new hypothesis by Christopher Moore at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, that may be a fair assumption.

We all know that blood carries oxygen and fuel to the brain but Moore believes that blood may actually modulate how neurons process information. "If it does modulate how neurons relay signals, that changes how we think the brain works", Moore said.

According to Moore's Hemo-Neural Hypothesis, blood is not just a physiological support system but actually helps control brain activity. Specifically, localized changes in blood flow affect the activity of nearby neurons, changing how they transmit signals to each other and hence regulating information flow throughout the brain. Ongoing studies in Moore's laboratory support this view, showing that blood flow does modulate individual neurons.

Practitioners of Yoga have long taught that standing on your head and increasing blood flow to the brain calms your thinking and increases alertness. Recent studies have linked exercise with improved memory and cognitive performance, and we all know that exercise gets the heart pumping and increases blood flow.

Moore believes that new studies into blood flow and the Hemal-Neural link may lead us to better treaments and greater understanding of many neurological and psychiatric diseases -diseases like schizophrenia, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer's that feature an associated change in brain vasculature.

"Most people assume the symptoms of these diseases are a secondary consequence of damage to the neurons. But we propose that they may also be a causative factor in the disease process, and that insight suggests entirely new treatments."

Source MIT

Friday, October 19, 2007

Simulator Experience Can Carry Over To Real Life

To be a Formula One race car driver, you must have lightning quick reflexes, extraordinary control over the complex, technological wonder that is the race car and the ability to make the decisions that win the race while keeping you safe as you travel at speeds that can reach 200 mph.

Lewis Hamilton at 22 years old stands poised to win the World Championship in F1 in his rookie season. One man says he knows why Lewis is so good. He has trained his brain.

Dr. Kerry Spackman, sports psychologist and a former mathematician and neuroscientist, says that Hamilton's many hours in the simulator have helped him train his brain in a way that produces good decisions and quick reactions in real-life situations.

Dr. Spackman says anyone can train their brain to respond more quickly. By training on simulated experiences in a controlled environment, the brain can learn to react just as quickly in the real world.

Dr Spackman said: 'This ability to take something from the real world to the virtual world – to analyse it, rehearse it and put it back into your unconscious mind – is a very great advantage.'

Hamilton - The Fastest Mind on the Planet

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Brain Stops Growing Before Old Age Sets In

The bad news is that our brains start to age and experience diminished cell growth fairly early in adulthood. The good news (or not so bad news) is that neurogenesis does continue, albeit at a slower rate.

Neuroscientists working with marmoset monkeys found that soon after the monkeys reach adulthood, the rate of new neural cell formation in the hippocampus (associated with both learning and memory) begins its decline. Marmoset monkeys reach sexual maturity at 18 months and the decline was noted at an average of age 8 years. A marmoset in the wild has a lifespan of about 11 to 12 years, although they can live up to age 20 in zoos.

Although it sounds rather disheartening to find that your mental decline begins in middle age rather than after old age has set in, the news isn't all bad. The rate of new brain cells growth may slow down but does not stop altogether. As Elizabeth Gould, team member and a professor of psychology and co-director of the Program in Neuroscience at Princeton University said, "It's not over till the last neuron dies".

"This news isn't entirely negative, though it seems to be at first glance," Gould said. "The silver lining here is that neurogenesis continues long past puberty and does not stop entirely, even in older primates. What's more, it can be stimulated with experience."

"Someday we hope this kind of research will help us discover what keeps brain cells growing, so we can both keep our minds vibrant and help people with neurodegenerative illnesses," Gould said. "In the meantime, it's safe to say that staying physically active and providing new experiences for your mind will not hurt. The brain doesn't have to stop growing."

Princeton University

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Microsoft Wants To Read Your Mind

Microsoft has filed a patent application for a mind-reader. That is, Microsoft wants to be able to read your brain waves as you use your computer. This would be accomplished with an electroencephalograph (EEG) which involves attaching electrodes to the scalp which feeds information about electrical impulses in the brain to the machine. The EEG signals contain data and patterns of data associated with brain states, which can be used to infer the existence of thought processes.

Microsoft wants to be able to judge the effectiveness of computer-user interfaces without having to rely on a question and answer format. Questions asked during use are distracting and humans poor historians, so answers to questions given following a task may be missing details or incorrect. Microsoft wants to get the information on the user's brain state before, after and during the time they are using the interface.

But lots of other non-cognitive activities going on in the brain may cause artifacts that can interfere with reading of cognitive states. To this end Microsoft is working on a way to train users in neurofeedback, for use along with other filtering to isolate the brain activity associated with use of the computer interface only. Users will be asked to think about anything, as long as they can sustain the thought and create a stable, recognizable and reproducible brain state. They will then be able to more effectively recognize cognitive brain states and filter out non-cognitive artifacts.

Read the patent application here.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Rejection and Low Self-Esteem

Low self-esteem can turn the unpleasant experience of rejection into a "fight or flight" reaction. According to a new study at UC Berkley, people with low self-esteem are less able to bounce back from social rejection and more likely to respond defensively. The study was conducted by Anett Gyurak, a graduate student and Ozlem Ayduk, a UC Berkeley assistant professor of psychology.

Subjects in the study were first given a questionnaire known as the Rosenberg self-esteem scale. They were rated as to low, normal or high self-esteem. They also completed a questionnaire on their ability to focus on tasks at hand without distraction.

The participants then viewed images with a variety of themes, positive, neutral, negative and themes of rejection. During the time they viewed the images, loud noises were sounded sporadically. The subjects were fitted with startle probes that measured eye blinks. Eye blinks accompanied the startle noise. All participants blinked more when exposed to disturbing images such as mutilated bodies or dead animals but for those with low self-esteem, eye blinks also increased when viewing themes of loneliness or rejection.

"The potency with which rejection activates the threat system in people with low self-esteem suggests that fear of rejection runs extremely deep in low self-esteem people," Gyurak said. On a more encouraging note, however, those with low self-esteem who scored higher for attention control, including the ability to focus, were able to tone down their knee-jerk reactions to perceived threats, the study found.

"These results show how maladjustment, such as low self-esteem, is determined on many levels, and that having a vulnerability factor such as low self-esteem can be overcome by the ability to control attention, opening the possibility for interventions in populations at risk for mental health problems," Ayduk said.

UC Berkeley

Friday, October 12, 2007

Keep Your Brain Alive Through Exercise

Everyone occasionally forgets where they left their car keys or the name of someone they met recently, little lapses of memory like where you parked the car can happen regardless of your age.

It's no secret that as we get older, these lapses can seem to be more frequent and we notice them more, possibly because it is normal to fear the age-related memory loss we may expect.

But we don't have to let our brains age, we can keep them fresh and active. In their book Keep Your Brain Alive Dr. Lawrence Katz, a professor of neurobiology at Duke University Medical Center, and Manning Rubin, author of 60 Ways to Relieve Stress in 60 Seconds, offer 83 neurobic exercises to sharpen your mind. Exercising the brain releases neurotrophins which keep the mind active and fit.

The premise is simple. By doing things differently from your routine, you cause the brain to experience new sensations and learn new things. If you are right-handed, try brushing your teeth with your toothbrush in your left hand, for example. Close your eyes while trying to put the key in the ignition when you start your car. The book offers brain exercises that can be done at home, at work, at the market, etc. that will help you change your routine, open neural pathways, learn new ways of doing things and keep your brain alive.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Control Video Games With Your Mind

Brain-computer interfaces used to be the stuff of science fiction but the reality is just around the corner and may one day be used for more than helping paraplegics control devices. One day soon, your brainwaves may replace your thumbs in your video games. This video shows a test of a brain interface system from Emotiv.

NASA developed brain-computer interface technology back in the 90s for use in simulators. The technology has been used in medical science in the retraining of paralysis victims. Today several companies are working on similar technology to create a brain-computer interface device that will replace hand-held controllers on video game systems.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Body-mind Meditation Improves Attention, Reduces Stress

We have long known that relaxation techniques help alleviate the symptoms of stress when practiced regularly. But can Integrated Body-Mind Meditation (IBMT) do a better job of improving a person's attention and response to stress?

A team of researchers from China and the University of Oregon conducted experiments involving 40-person groups who were assigned to either five days of relaxation training or five days of IBMT training. Both groups were tested involving attention and reaction to mental stress before and after the training.

The group receiving IBMT training showed greater improvement in an attention test than did the relaxation training group. Both groups showed elevated release of the stress hormonone cortisol. After the IBMT training, subjects showed a lesser release of cortisol, which indicates better stress regulation. the IBMT-trained group also had lower levels of anxiety, depression and fatigue.

The IBMT approach was developed in the 1990s. Its effects have been studied in China since 1995. The technique avoids struggles to control thought, relying instead on a state of restful alertness, allowing for a high degree of body-mind awareness while receiving instructions from a coach, who provides breath-adjustment guidance and mental imagery while soothing music plays in the background. Thought control is achieved gradually through posture, relaxation, body-mind harmony and balanced breathing. The authors noted in the study that IBMT may be effective during short-term application because of its integrative use of these components...

In summary, the 11-member team wrote: "IBMT is an easy, effective way for improvement in self-regulation in cognition, emotion and social behavior. Our study is consistent with the idea that attention, affective processes and the quality of moment-to-moment awareness are flexible skills that can be trained."

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Video Games Increase Spatial Skills in Women

Research at the University of Toronto uncovered some unknown difference in spatial skills between men and women, but say that they have also discovered how to close the gap.

The researchers found that women are not as good as men at switching their attention among different objects and speculate that this may be a reason women do not do as well at spatial tasks as men. However, in their experiments which involved playing a video game, the researchers found that both men and women quickly improved their spatial skills and that women do catch up to the men. The improved performance was maintained when the subject were assessed again after five months.

Professor Ian Spence, director of the engineering psychology laboratory in the Department of Psychology, speculates that the action video game experience “may cause the expression of previously inactive genes which control the development of neural connections that are necessary for spatial attention. Clearly, something dramatic is happening in the brain when we see marked improvements in spatial skills after only 10 hours of game playing and these improvements are maintained for many months.”

“One important application of this research could be in helping to attract more women to the mathematical sciences and engineering. Since spatial skills play an important role in these professions, bringing the spatial skills of young women up to the level of their male counterparts could help to change the gender balance in these fields that are so important to our economic health,” Spence added.

The study will be published in the October issue of Psychological Science and was funded by October issue of Psychological Science.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Negative Influences Stronger than Positive Ones

One things humans prize above all is the ability to make up our own minds. When presented with a new product, for instance, we assume we will be able to form our own opinion of it without influence from others. However, a study at the University of Chicago seems to indicate that not only are our opinions influenced by others, we are more likely to be influenced by a negative opinion than a positive one.

The researchers gave consumers information on a new product and they were allowed to independently form opinions. Some were negative and some positive. But when presented with the opinions of others in the study, original opinions were influenced and were influenced more often by negative attitudes than positive ones. When asked to participate in a forum, those who held negative opinions initially became even more negative.

With the advent of the Internet and social networking sites, the dissemination of negative attitudes towards products could have an affect on sales for companies. But what of the implications for individuals? We should be aware that these social influences exist and can significantly impact our perceptions and attitudes.

Friday, October 5, 2007

High Uric Acid Levels Cause Mini Strokes

Uric Acid seems to play contradictory roles in the brain. On the one hand, it is a powerful anti-oxidant and may be protective against diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. But a report on a study from Johns Hopkins indicates that normal-high levels of UA may cause small and undectectable strokes that over time, lead to cognitive decline.

The study, which was published in the October 2 issue of Neurology links high levels of uric acid in the brain to an increase in areas called white matter hyperintensities, or WMH. These are small dead areas of the brain which have been oxygen-deprived.Lack of oxygen due to clots or burst blood vessels in the brain are hallmarks of classic large strokes. Over a lifetime it is common to have a number of these mini-strokes which go unnoticed, but the cumulative effect may interfere with our ability to think quickly and learn.

In the study, Schretlen and his team obtained and analyzed brain MRI scans of 85 men and 92 women between 20 and 92 years of age. All participants had normal levels of UA. However, those with high-normal levels showed 2.6 times the volume of WMH than those with average or low UA. Among subjects 60 years of age or older, those with high-normal levels of UA had four to five times the volume of WMH than others.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

What's Your Brain's Sex ID?

Men and women ARE different and it's not just the obvious differences that we can see. According to researchers, there are differences in the brain and how we think and process information although some researchers say a man can have a "woman's brain" and some women may think more like men.

If you want to find out about your "brain sex" differences, the BBC has this interesting and fun test online. The test takes a bit of time but you can come back to it more than once in order to finish. Have something handy to measure your fingers - you'll find out why when you take the test.

Take the Sex I.D. test and get the lowdown on your brain sex.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Nicotine Dependency is in the Brain

Scientists studying nicotine dependency have discovered what makes quitting so difficult and why even smokers who have abstained for a long period may still relapse. 80% of persons who quit smoking relapse within one year.

Experiments with rats at the Scripps Research Koob lab revealed that chronic nicotine use recruits a major brain stress system, the extrahypothalamic corticotropin releasing factor (CRF) system, which contributes to continued tobacco use by exacerbating anxiety and craving upon withdrawal. By administering a compound that blocked the receptors involved in this stress system, researchers found it alleviated withdrawal symptoms.

"We reduced the need to take nicotine by blocking CRF-1 receptors in the brain. We were surprised by the compound's dramatic effectiveness. We don't know yet if the same mechanism is involved in humans with tobacco dependence, but it is very promising," said Olivier George, a research associate in the Scripps Research Koob lab who conducted the study with Sandy Ghozland and other colleagues.

"The key in nicotine addiction is that the positive pleasurable effects of nicotine are instantaneous and short lasting, while the negative effects are delayed and long lasting. Even if nicotine may transiently induce a relief from a negative emotional state, its long-term consequences are disastrous," he added.

In the study it was found that rats deprived of nicotine, overloaded on it when allowed to self-administer. This overloading caused them to take in an amount of nicotine in only six hours that previously would have been spread out over 12 hours. This is the equivalent of a light smoker who, after quitting, relapses and becomes a chain smoker.

The research indicates that future nicotine withdrawal treatments may not be dependent on nicotine replacements like gum and the patch.

The study has been published in an advance online issue of the Journal of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Monday, October 1, 2007

Seasonal Affective Disorder - Why are you SAD?

As the days grow shorter in the northern hemisphere with the onset of fall and its transition into winter, everyone laments the loss of those bright, sunny days of summer. But for some, the changing of the seasons can bring depression, listlessness, anxiety, withdrawal and even trouble with concentration and the processing of information. The cause? SAD, or seasonal affective disorder.

It is estimated that one in five Americans suffers from some changes in mood or behavior from the change of the seasons but an estimated 6% display the more serious symptoms of SAD. The occurrence of the disorder is measurably higher in the more northern latitudes such as the Arctic and Scandanavia.

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression. Researchers have several theories on why it occurs. It may be the dearth of sunlight interferes with our natural circadean rhytms and throws of our body's natural interal biological clock. Some researchers have investigated the roles that melatonin and serotonin production may play in the disorder. The production of melatonin, a sleep-related hormone, increases during long winter nights and has been tied to depression. Serotonin, essential for mood regulation, sees its levels drop in periods of reduced sunlight.

Whatever the cause, there are treatments available. These can include light therapy, medications such as antidepressants and supportive psychological counseling. If you believe you are suffering from the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, consult your health practitioner for screening and diagnosis.

According to the Mayo clinic, these are some of the symptoms of SAD:

* Depression
* Hopelessness
* Anxiety
* Loss of energy
* Social withdrawal
* Oversleeping
* Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
* Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
* Weight gain
* Difficulty concentrating and processing information

The symptoms and risks of seasonal affective disorder can wreak havoc in the life of the sufferer and possibly lead to serious complications, including substance abuse and suicide. Seek the advice of a doctor or other health professional.