Mind Games: Cognitive Calisthenics

Is “Brain Fitness” the Latest Health Trend?

Dr. Brian BetzDid you ever wonder why you used to get so hungry during finals? Did you think it was because you were burning calories by exercising mental thought the same way you burn calories when you go to the gym?

New research has shown that it is in fact possible to exercise your brain, and that the process of learning can actually have more positive results than just helping you pass a test—it may actually prevent neurological decline, allowing you to live a better quality of life for longer.

Dr. Brian Betz has been an adjunct professor of psychology at GSEP since 2000. He began his faculty experience by teaching Clinical Neuropsychology in the doctor of psychology program, and now teaches approximately six courses per year such as Psychopharmacology, Physiological Psychology, and Principles and Theories of Learning. Betz also offers master’s- and doctoral-level students the opportunity to participate in ongoing research projects that he conducts on cognitive functioning in people with probable Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia. In addition, he invites students to complete a six-month clinical rotation with him in the neuropsychological assessment clinic at the Long Beach Child and Adolescent Program, a division of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.

Here, Betz uses his expertise to explain to us the newer concept of “brain fitness.”

Colleague: What is “brain fitness?”

B.B.: The term brain fitness reflects a hypothesis that cognitive abilities can be maintained or improved by exercising the brain, the same way that physical fitness is improved by exercising the body. Brain fitness is evident in an ability to assimilate information, comprehend relationships, and develop reasonable conclusions and plans. Brain fitness can be developed by formal education, being actively mentally engaged in life, continuing to learn, and exercises designed to challenge cognitive skills.

Colleague: Why is it important?

B.B.: There is strong anecdotal evidence that aspects of brain structure remain plastic throughout life, and that high levels of mental activity are associated with reduced risks of age-related dementia. Developing one’s brain functions helps to create a higher degree of cognitive reserve, and thus, a further level from which to decline if and when one does experience progressive cognitive impairment.

Brain Exercises

Colleague: Is there research that demonstrates this?

B.B.: The Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) nationwide (America) clinical trial is so far the nation’s largest study of cognitive training. The results, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2002, showed significant percentages of the 2,802 participants age 65 and older who trained for five weeks for about two-and-a-half hours per week improved their memory, reasoning and information-processing speed. Dr. Joe Verghese found that people with higher activity scores had lower risks of Alzheimer’s and dementia.

An open question in the field is whether people who will later develop Alzheimer’s are naturally less active, or whether intervening to raise an activity score will delay or prevent Alzheimer’s. If the latter were true, people could lower their dementia risk by seven percent simply by adding one activity per week. According to the findings of that same study, subjects who did crossword puzzles four days a week had a 47 percent lower risk of dementia than subjects who did a crossword puzzle just once a week.

Colleague: What kind of exercises? Sudoku? We love Sudoku.

B.B.: Activities that involve planning ahead such as chess and crossword puzzles, or attention and problem-solving skills such as complicated video games, stimulate the prefrontal cortex in the frontal lobe of the brain. Learning a language, an instrument, painting, or cooking requires the coordination of multiple brain regions: the auditory cortices, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. Developing new motor skills, such as playing tennis or another sport, also involves multiple brain regions: the parietal lobes, cerebellum, basal ganglia, thalamus, prefrontal cortex, and primary motor cortex.

But physical exercise, not just cognitive exercise, is important in the development and maintenance of cognitive abilities. Physical exercise promotes brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that acts on neurons in the central and the peripheral nervous systems, helping to support the survival of existing neurons, and encourage the growth and differentiation of new neurons and synapses. It is active in the hippocampus, cortex, and basal forebrain; areas vital to learning, memory, and executive functions.

Thus, healthy lifestyle habits including mental stimulation, physical exercise, good nutrition, stress management, and healthy sleep patterns cumulatively improve brain fitness. Conversely, chronic stress, anxiety, depression, the natural effects of aging on the cortex, and prolonged periods of elevated glocucorticoid levels can decrease brain fitness, as well as general health.

Colleague: How does it work?

B.B.: Neurogenesis is the creation of new neurons. The more active a brain cell is, the more connections it develops with neighboring neurons through a process called dendritic sprouting. A single neuron can have up to 30 thousand such connections, creating a dense web of interconnected activity throughout the brain. Each neuron can then be stimulated directly through experience, or indirectly through the connections from its neighbors. Thus, consistent mental challenge by novel stimuli increases production and interconnectivity of neurons and nerve growth factor, preventing loss of connections and cell death.

While mental exercise increases the rate at which those new brain cells survive and make functional connections into existing neural networks, physical exercise boosts the brain’s rate of neurogenesis throughout life. Therefore, the challenges of both mental and physical exercise increase the secretion of nerve growth factor, which helps neurons grow and stay healthy.

Colleague: Can you measure your brain fitness the way you would be able to see muscle tone in your arms or legs after working out?

B.B.: While you can see an increase in the size of a specific muscle such as a bicep after exercising it over time, the volume of brain tissue does not change from “exercising” one’s cerebral cortex. That being said, one would likely see improved performance on cognitive tests of a particular ability, such as attention, after one has been actively working to improve his or her attention skills. Additionally, one may see improvement on tests of functional neuroimaging, such as on a positron emission tomography (PET) scan, after one has worked to improve a particular cognitive skill.

Colleague: Do you do brain exercises yourself? How do you stay mentally fit?

B.B.: I exercise my brain by working as a clinical neuropsychologist and graduate-level course instructor. Both careers require engaging in higher- level cognitive abilities such as abstract reasoning, problem solving, attention, and memory skills.

Additionally, I limit my stress level, thus decreasing my level of glucocorticoid, which damage the cerebral cortex, especially the hippocampus. I lift weights and run daily, maintain a healthy diet, and keep a regular sleep and wake schedule as well.

Colleague: Thank you so much for taking this time with us Dr. Betz. We have already improved our brain fitness just by learning about it during this interview. Ready for a game of chess?

B.B.: You’re on.

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