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Brain scans revealed artistic talent could be innate

Have you ever heard people say that they tend to be more of a right-brain or left-brain thinker? From books to television programs, you’ve probably heard the phrase mentioned numerous times or perhaps you’ve even taken an online test to determine which type best describes you. Turns out we’re neither; new research shows we should be looking at the size of our neural matter instead.

The research, published in NeuroImage on March 29th, 2014, suggests that artistic talent could be innate. Researchers reported that training and environmental upbringing also play crucial roles in their ability. 

The research finds greater neural matter among visual artists in areas related to fine motor movements and visual imagery.  ”The people who are better at drawing really seem to have more developed structures in regions of the brain that control for fine motor performance and what we call procedural memory,” explained one of the lead scientists, Rebecca Chamberlain from KU Leuven, Belgium.

The study itself was somewhat limited, though it complements a growing body of evidence that artistic brains are different.  Chamberlain and associates compared the brains of 21 visual artists with 23 otherwise non-artistic individuals, employing a scanning method called voxel-based morphometry.

These detailed scans revealed that the artist group had significantly larger amount of gray matter in an area of the brain called the precuneus in the parietal lobe. “This region is involved in a range of functions but potentially in things that could be linked to creativity, like visual imagery - being able to manipulate visual images in your brain, combine them and deconstruct them,” Chamberlain said.

Participants were also asked to complete drawing tasks, which were examined by the team - who looked at the relationship between their performance in this task and their gray and white matter.  The participants who were better at drawing had increased grey and white matter in the cerebellum and also in the supplementary motor area. Both areas are involved with fine motor control and performance of routine actions. Grey matter is mainly made up of nerve cells, while white matter controls communication between the grey matter regions.

Despite the discovery, it is still not clear what the increase in neural matter might mean. Chamberlain said that these individuals have enhanced processing in these areas, based on other studies of other creative people. “It falls into line with evidence that focus of expertise really does change the brain. The brain is incredibly flexible in response to training and there are huge individual differences that we are only beginning to tap into.” Chamberlain said.

The study cannot confirm whether this extra matter is an innate gift, but it does suggest the artist’s environment or upbringing plays a part in developing these creative spaces.

"We would need to do further studies where we look at teenagers and see how they develop in their drawing as they grow older - but I think [this study] has given us a handle on how we could begin to look at this." explained another author of the paper, Chris McManus from University College London.

As Chamberlain said “The brain is incredibly flexible in response to training”, so start training your brain now!

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For a brain boost, spend time with your grandchildren … but only once in a while

Grandparents often say that spending time with their grandchild gives them great joy. What they may not realize is that their brains can actually benefit from the interaction. A new study finds grandchildren keep grandmothers mentally sharp.

The study, published on April 7th, 2014 in Menopause, the journal of the North American Menopause Society, finds post-menopausal women who spend time taking care of grandkids lower their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other cognitive disorders. However, too much time with the grandchildren — five or more days a week — appeared to make grandma more likely to lose her marbles.

“We know that older women who are socially engaged have better cognitive function and a lower risk of developing dementia later, but too much of a good thing just might be bad,” North American Menopause Society (NAMS) executive director Dr. Margery Gass said.

The research was led by Katherine Burn, BSc, of the University of Melbourne in Victoria, Australia. The researchers used information from the Women’s Healthy Aging Project, which involved questionnaires administered by trained field workers in 2004. They asked whether the women, aged 57 to 68, had grandchildren, whether they cared for them, how often they cared for them if they did and whether their children had been particularly demanding of them in the past 12 months.

The women’s cognitive abilities were assessed using the Symbol-Digit Modalities Test (SDMT), California Verbal Learning Test, and Tower of London. In addition to these three different tests of mental sharpness, the women also told the researchers whether or not they felt as if their own children had been especially demanding of them over the past year. Of the 120 grandmothers in the study, those who cared for their grandchildren one day per week performed best on two of those three tests.

However, much to the authors’ surprise, grandmothers who cared for their grandchildren for at least five days per week did significantly worse on a test that measured those women’s mental processing speed and working memory. The investigation also revealed that the more time grandmothers spent taking care of grandkids, they more they felt that their own children had been more demanding of them, suggesting that mood could be a factor in this finding.

The authors say their findings could indicate that highly frequent grandparenting predicts lower mental performance. They are planning to follow up with additional research.

Because grandmothering is such an important and common social role for postmenopausal women, we need to know more about its effects on their future health,” said Dr. Margery Gass. “This study is a good start.”

This study was small, according to Jim McAleer, MPA, president of the Alzheimer’s Association, but the results did not surprise him. He said in an email that other studies have shown that social engagement and exercise (and it’s assumed there is some exercise involved in caring for children) benefit the mind. “It’s surprising that longer periods of care impacted memory function. Perhaps extend physical exertion in those cases caused other health problems that impacted memory, or increased stress — a known risk factor for memory loss.”

Peter Strong, PhD, of the Boulder Center for Mindfulness Therapy, wrote in an email that he believes the inner feeling of self-worth that comes from being socially engaged with grandchildren is what’s important. As for the negative effect of spending too much time caring for their grandchildren? “Once a week is enough to develop this inner belief; any more than this may create the opposite belief of not being physically or mentally able to fulfill the expectations of extended child minding and this will undermine the positive belief of self-worth.”

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Cardio exercise in your 20s could benefit your brain in your 40s

Ask any runner and she will tell you that running helps clear your mind and that the oxygen feeding your brain gives you that clear focus. A new study shows that regularly engaging in cardio exercise in young adulthood could potentially protect your memory and cognitive health decades down the road.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis found that better cardiac fitness in young adults translated to better brain fitness 25 years later, adding to a growing body of evidence that links heart health with mental functioning. The findings were published on April 2nd, 2014 in the journal Neurology.

“Many studies show the benefits to the brain of good heart health,” said David R. Jacobs, Jr, Ph.D., of the University of Minnesota, who designed and led the study. “This is one more important study that should remind young adults of the brain health benefits of cardio fitness activities such as running, swimming, biking or cardio fitness classes.”

Researchers examined the association between cardiovascular fitness and performance on cognitive tests in 2,747 healthy men and women over a 25-year period. The participants were recruited in 1985, when they were all between 18 and 30 years old.

In 1985, all participants did a short treadmill test to assess their fitness. The researchers recorded how long each person could maintain running at their top speed.

There were seven follow-up checks over the next 25 years. At the last one, in 2010, researchers tested the participants’ mental functioning, including verbal memory, psycho-motor speed, and executive function.

In general, people who were more fit at the beginning of the study were more likely to have higher education, to smoke less, to be active more often and to have healthy blood pressure and lower cholesterol than people who were less fit.

Researchers did find an association between increased performance on the cardiovascular fitness test in young adulthood and improved memory in middle age. For every extra minute a person was able to stay on the treadmill during the first treadmill test, the better they performed on the cognitive test in middle age. Plus, for people who had smaller differences in the time they lasted on the treadmill from young adulthood to middle age, their performances on the cognitive tests in middle age were better, compared with people who had bigger differences.

It fits in with other research, including another recent study that showed young adults who have better heart health, as measured by blood pressure, have better thinking skills in middle age than those with high blood pressure. That study, done by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco also used three tests of memory and thinking and it also accounted for weight, sex, drinking, smoking and education.

It is possible that exercising more at an early age simply lowers blood pressure, which then lowers the risk for cognitive decline and dementia, but the researchers took differences in blood pressure into account, Jacobs said, and the results held.

“My interpretation is that something about being more fit, or just doing better on the specific treadmill test that we included, has a connection to better thinking skills,” he said.

There is more going on than just exercise, Jacobs says. “Just moving around — being engaged in family and life as opposed to sitting down and watching TV and pretty much not doing anything, they are going to preserve brain function. This is really about engagement in life,” he said.

Brain differences in college-aged occasional stimulant users

Scientists have discovered college-aged individuals who occasionally use stimulant drugs, such as cocaine, amphetamines and prescription drugs such as Adderall, display brain changes that may put them at higher risk for developing a serious addiction later in life.

The study from the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine, published on March 26th in the Journal of Neuroscience, says screening for these changes could help to predict whether a young person experimenting with stimulant drugs should have early interventions that could help prevent future drug abuse.

The study implies that brain activity patterns can be used as a means of identifying at-risk youth long before they have any obvious outward signs of addictive behaviors. “If you show me 100 college students and tell me which ones have taken stimulants a dozen times, I can tell you those students’ brains are different,” said Martin Paulus, MD, professor of psychiatry and a co-senior author with Angela Yu, PhD, professor of cognitive science at UC San Diego.” “Our study is telling us, it’s not ‘this is your brain on drugs,’ it’s ‘this is the brain that does drugs.’”

Researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine brains of 18- to 24-year-old college students. A total of 158 nondependent occasional stimulant users and 47 stimulant-naïve control subjects were recruited. Participants sat in front of a screen and were shown either an X or an O on a screen and instructed to press, as quickly as possible, a left button if an X appeared or a right button if an O appeared. If a tone was heard, they were instructed not to press a button. Each participant’s reaction times and errors were measured for 288 trials, while their brain activity was recorded via fMRI.

Occasional stimulant users were characterized as having taken stimulants an average of 12 to 15 times. The stimulant-naïve control group included students who had never taken stimulants. Both groups were screened for factors, such as alcohol dependency and mental health disorders that might have confounded the study’s results.

The outcomes from the trials showed that occasional users have slightly faster reaction times, suggesting a tendency toward impulsivity. The most striking difference, however, occurred during the “stop” trials. Here, the occasional users made more mistakes, and their performance worsened, relative to the control group, as the task became harder (i.e., when the tone occurred later in the trial).

The brain images of the occasional users showed consistent patterns of diminished neuronal activity in the parts of the brain associated with anticipatory functioning and updating anticipation based on past trials.

"We used to think that drug addicts just did not hold themselves back but this work suggests that the root of this is an impaired ability to anticipate a situation and to detect trends in when they need to stop," said Katia Harl-, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher in the Paulus laboratory and the study’s lead author.

Next, Paulus plans to study if brain plasticity may be altered through certain activities to undo the hard-wiring present in brains of people who may be more likely to develop a drug addiction.

"Right now there are no treatments for stimulant addiction and the relapse rate is upward of 50 percent," said Paulus. "Early intervention is our best option."

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A protein, normally active in fetuses, may also protect the neurons in older people.

Along with symptoms of cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease patients often have an accumulation of plaques and tangles of proteins in parts of their brains. But one of the big scientific mysteries of Alzheimer’s disease is: Why do some people whose brains accumulate the plaques and tangles so strongly associated with Alzheimer’s not develop the disease?

Now, a series of studies published on March 19th 2014, in the journal Nature provides new clues that suggest a possible answer, one that could lead to new treatments if confirmed by other research.

The memory and thinking problems of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, which affect an estimated seven million Americans, may be related to a failure in the brain’s stress response system, the new research suggests. If this system is working well, it can protect the brain from abnormal Alzheimer’s proteins; if it gets derailed, critical areas of the brain start degenerating.

“It’s an amazing idea that neurons that you’re born with will function for 100 years or more, in a very high-stress situation … until the day a person dies,” said Bruce Yankner, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School who led the work. “The brain is a pretty tough organ and we should strive to find out what makes it so tough and capitalize on this.”

The research highlights a different approach to understanding neurodegenerative diseases: instead of focusing on the negative changes that cause disease, researchers looked for lapses in the brain’s protective mechanisms. The study focuses on a protein previously thought to act mostly in the brains of developing fetuses. The scientists found that the protein also appears to protect neurons in healthy older people from aging-related stresses. But in people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias, the protein is sharply depleted in key brain regions.

REST, a regulator that switches off certain genes, is primarily known to keep fetal neurons in an immature state until they develop to perform brain functions, said Dr. Bruce A. Yankner, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and the lead author of the new study. By the time babies are born, REST becomes inactive, he said, except in some areas outside the brain like the colon, where it seems to suppress cancer.

While investigating how different genes in the brain change as people age, Dr. Yankner’s team was startled to find that REST was the most active gene regulator in older brains.

In laboratory tests, REST protected brain cells from dying when exposed to a number of stresses, including the proteins that form the plaque in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.

“One very positive, optimistic note from this study is that it suggests that dementia can be resisted by some people, and it provides the first molecular inklings of how that might occur,” Yankner said.

Outside scientists said that the study was important and meticulously done, but warned that it is basic research and will need to be repeated. Translation of such insights into experimental treatments that can be tested in patients typically takes years.

Analyzing brains from brain banks and dementia studies, the researchers found that brains of young adults ages 20 to 35 contained little REST, while healthy adults between the ages of 73 and 106 had plenty. REST levels grew the older people got, so long as they did not develop dementia, suggesting that REST is related to longevity.

But in people with Alzheimer’s, mild cognitive impairment, frontotemporal dementia and Lewy body dementia, the brain areas affected by these diseases contained much less REST than healthy brains.

This was true only in people who actually had memory and thinking problems. People who remained cognitively healthy, but whose brains had the same accumulation of amyloid plaques and tau tangles as people with Alzheimer’s, had three times more REST than those suffering Alzheimer’s symptoms. About a third of people who have such plaques will not develop Alzheimer’s symptoms, studies show.

REST levels dropped as symptoms worsened, so people with mild cognitive impairment had more REST than Alzheimer’s patients. And only key brain regions were affected. In Alzheimer’s, REST steeply declined in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, areas critical to learning, memory and planning. Other areas of the brain not involved in Alzheimer’s showed no REST drop-off.

Because studies that involve genetic manipulation are not feasible in humans, the team created mice that lacked the REST protein. When the researchers compared month-old mice with and without REST, they had similar numbers of neurons in key brain areas. But by the time they were eight months old, more brain cells had degenerated and been lost in mice lacking the protein than in those with it.

In a follow-up experiment, the scientists found that among brain cells exposed to a toxin, cells that were forced to make higher than normal levels of REST were less likely to die.

The researchers found that higher levels of REST in the prefrontal cortex — a portion of the brain involved in decision-making, planning ahead, and coordinating activities — were correlated with greater ability to remember autobiographical information and events.

In addition, REST levels were significantly higher in study participants who had signs in their brain of Alzheimer’s disease but no recorded memory issues. That, along with the tests in animals, suggested the protein was helping preserve cognitive abilities.

For years, experimental drugs aimed at the pathological signs of Alzheimer’s disease have been ineffective, and Yankner thinks that perhaps this variability in people’s REST levels during aging could help explain those results. His team found that REST appears to be activated in response to stress, but further work needs to be done to understand precisely why some people have higher REST levels during aging and some do not.

Already, his group is searching for experimental drugs that can turn up REST levels, and he said one intriguing finding so far is that an approved drug, lithium, appears to increase REST production.

Yankner cautioned that no one should take lithium to prevent memory loss, but said that the drug might serve as a prototype in the development of drugs that can be tested in people.

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CogniFit is celebrating Brain Awareness Week with a 25% discount on individual subscriptions.

Simply log in or register for free on cognifit.com and click on this link.

Brain Awareness Week is a global campaign to increase awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research. The Brain Awareness Campaign is a worldwide celebration of the brain that brings together scientists, families, schools, communities. Although Brain Awareness Week is officially from March 10th to 16th, 2014, any week is a good time to train your brain!

Structural brain changes of smoking in teens.

It’s common knowledge that smoking cigarettes is bad for your health, but young people ages 18 to 25 are still choosing to light up more than any other demographic in the United States. Researchers at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) now have evidence that young smokers who have smoked more cigarettes have clear differences in their brains compared to non-smokers.

The study was published on March 3rd in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology and was funded by Philip Morris USA, makers of Marlboro and Virginia Slims.

Prior research has shown brain differences between adult smokers and non-smokers, but few studies focused on the youngest human demographic of smokers whose brains are still undergoing development. In studies of adolescent animals, nicotine damaged and killed brain cells.

The UCLA researchers team mapped the brains of 42 people ages 16 to 21 using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and asked them about their smoking history and cravings. Eighteen of the participants were smokers. They had typically started smoking around age 15 and smoked six to seven cigarettes per day.

There were no clear differences in the brains of smokers versus non-smokers. However, among smokers, those who reported smoking more cigarettes tended to have a thinner insula, a region of the cerebral cortex involved in in shaping our consciousness and emotions. The insula also houses a high concentration of nicotine receptors and plays a critical role in generating the craving to smoke. The effects seemed confined to the right insula.

The study’s lead researcher Edythe London, from the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA and the David Geffen School of Medicine in Los Angeles, said they focused on this particular part of the brain because previous studies in adults and mice showed its size and volume were affected by smoking.

The researchers also found a thinner insula in the brains of people who had more cravings and felt more dependent on cigarettes. “Because the brain is still undergoing development, smoking during this critical period may produce neurobiological changes that promote tobacco dependence later in life,” said London. Changing the structure of the insula may affect future smoking dependence and other substance abuse.

London said It is possible that changes in the brain from prolonged exposure help maintain dependence,” and added “People who start smoking early in life seem to have more trouble quitting and have more serious health consequences than those who start later”.

Although the study illustrated a difference in brain structure of young smokers and nonsmokers, it did not prove that cigarettes changed their brains. It could be that people with differently structured insulas are more likely to take up smoking for an unknown reason. However, the results pave the way for future studies to determine the actual cause and effect.

“Ideally one would start the study in 12-year-olds who haven’t begun to smoke; follow them out after they begin to smoke; and see if in fact the smaller insula thickness was a predictor of a predilection to become a smoker,” London said. “This is practical. It just requires funding.”

On the other hand, if London’s team finds proof that smoking causes thinning of the right insula, it would provide further evidence of the detrimental health effects of picking up the habit at a young age.

A good night’s sleep is essential for brain health

It is common knowledge, that sleep plays a vital role in good health and well-being throughout your life. Sleep helps your brain work properly. While you’re sleeping, your brain is preparing for the next day. It’s forming new pathways to help you learn and remember information. 

What does happen if you do not sleep? According to researchers from Uppsala University's Department of Neuroscience, Sweden, lack of sleep may promote neurodegenerative processes.

The study, published in the specialist journal Sleep, follows an investigation published in the US journal Science in October that found sleep accelerated the cleansing of cellular waste from the brain. The Swedish study was primarily funded by the Swedish Brain Foundation (Hjärnfonden) and Novo Nordisk Foundation.

Researchers looked at levels of two types of brain molecules: the neuronal enzyme NSE and the calcium-binding protein S-100B. These molecules typically rise in the blood under conditions resulting in brain damage or distress. An increase in levels of the molecules can be measured after everything from sports injuries to the head and carbon monoxide poisoning, to sleep apnea and fetal distress after childbirth.

15 normal-weight young men participated in the study. In one condition they were sleep-deprived for one night, while in the other condition they slept for approximately 8 hours. Researchers measured the levels of NSE and S-100B and found morning serum levels of the molecules increased by about 20 per cent compared with values obtained after a night of sleep.

Researchers think that the rise of these molecules in blood after sleep loss may indicate that a lack of sleep might mean loss of brain tissue.

“These brain molecules typically rise in blood under conditions of brain damage,” said sleep researcher Christian Benedict at the Department of Neuroscience, Uppsala University, who led the study. “Thus, our results indicate that a lack of sleep may promote neurodegenerative processes….In conclusion, the findings of our trial indicate that a good night’s sleep may be critical for maintaining brain health.”

Christian Benedict said it’s important to note, however, that levels of NSE and S-100B previously found after acute brain damage (including as a result of a concussion), have been distinctly higher than those found in the Swedish study, and there is no suggestion that a single night of sleep loss is equally harmful to your brain as a head injury.

Still, the researchers said their findings suggest “a good night’s sleep may possess neuroprotective function in humans, as has also been suggested by others.”

Good night and sleep tight!

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Your brain recognizes :-) as a real human smiling face but not (-:

Just a few decades after they were invented, emoticons have become an integral part of our communication, especially in texts, chats, and e-mails. Emoticons are used online to covey intonation or voice inflection, bodily gestures and emotion behind statements that might otherwise be misinterpreted.

Emoticons are so much present in our daily lives that the human brain now reacts to them in the same way as a real face, according to a new Australian research recently published in the journal Social Neuroscience.

Although the iconic grinning yellow sphere with two eyes and a mouth originated in the 1960s and other typographical depictions of emotion cropped up even earlier, the classic smiley emoticon ‘:-)’ as we know it originated in 1982. It was created by Scott Fahlman in a message posted to the Carnegie Mellon University computer science general board on 19 September 1982, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 

To carry out the research, 20 right-handed participants aged from 18 to 32 years, including 14 women and 6 men, took part in the experiment. All participants were free from an uncorrected impairment in eyesight or hand movement, a personal or a family history of any psychological or genetic disorder or a period of unconsciousness in the last 5 years. They were shown images of real faces, smiley face emoticons, and a meaningless string of characters.

Interestingly, when the series of punctuation used to create a smiley face was reversed to show ‘(-:’, or presented upright, no response was triggered. “Areas of the brain most readily involved in face perception aren’t able to process the image as a face,” said researcher, Dr. Owen Churches, from the school of psychology at Flinders University in Adelaide. Only when the emoticons were presented in the conventional digital communication manner - as ‘:-)’ was the punctuation read as a smiling face.

Most people now instantly recognize ‘:-)’ as a smiling face. However, this response is not innate, but rather learned. “There is no innate neural response to emoticons that babies are born with. Before 1982 there would be no reason that ‘:-)’ would activate face sensitive areas of the cortex but now it does because we’ve learnt that this represents a face,” said Dr. Churches “and to decode that language we’ve produced a new pattern of brain activity.”

According to Dr. Churches, who has been studying the neuroscience of face perception for several years, faces are very special from a psychological point of view: “Most of us pay more attention to faces than we do to anything else,” and “We know experimentally that people respond differently to faces than they do to other object categories.”

He says when we look at an image of a real face, we recognize the position of the mouth relative to the nose and the eyes, and as a result very specific parts of the brain are activated. When this image is inverted, we get another specific pattern of brain activity. He wanted to find out if the same applied when we looked at a smiley face emoticon, which is a stylized representation of a smiling human face.

CogniFit brain fitness programs assess and train 25+ cognitive skills including recognition.

Olympic athletes’ brain training secrets

The Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics are almost done and you wonder how these elite athletes prepare themselves? Obviously, they spend several years in preparing themselves on different levels: physical, technical, and tactical training. But behind these impressive skills is an arguably even more remarkable mental prowess cultivated through years of training the mind to tune out distractions, reduce stress and anxiety and build the focus and stamina athletes need to achieve optimal performance.

It is often said that sports are 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical. Bruce Jenner is a CogniFit believer and a former Olympic gold medal-winning decathlon runner, who once said, “You have to train your mind like you train your body”.

Many Olympic athletes routinely use visualization techniques as part of their training to cultivate not only a competitive edge, but also to create renewed mental awareness, a heightened sense of well-being and confidence. Athletes use visualization techniques to ‘intend’ an outcome of a race or training session, or simply to rest in a relaxed feeling of calm and well-being. By imagining a scene, complete with images of a previous best performance or a future desired outcome, athletes are instructed to simply ‘step into’ that feeling. While imagining these scenarios, athletes should try to imagine the detail and the way it feels to perform in the desired way. With mental rehearsal, minds and bodies become trained to actually perform the skill imagined.

It is a known fact that Olympic athletes cannot win when they are mentally defeated. Athletes who do not have their head on straight can rarely perform in a manner that will prove successful. As such, some athletes add meditation into their sports training to clear their mind. It is simply a process used to train the mind in a manner no different than one would train the body. When the body is strong, it can perform well. The mind is no different. Russian and Bulgarian athletes initiated the concept of neurogenic conditioning - nervous system conditioning - to improve their performance in athletic events. It definitely worked for them as their results indicate. Other athletes the world over began to employ such tactics.

Olympic athletes also use positive psychology methods to consistently achieve optimal performance or as they like to say “be in the zone”. Positive psychology is a branch of psychology whose purpose was summed up in 1998 by Martin Seligman and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: “We believe that a psychology of positive human functioning will arise, which achieves a scientific understanding and effective interventions to build thriving individuals, families, and communities”. Positive psychology is primarily concerned with using the psychological theory, research and intervention techniques to understand the positive, adaptive, creative and emotionally fulfilling aspects of human behavior. Elite athletes are able to differentiate themselves from their competition, based upon the psychological skills they hold, develop, and are able to apply effectively. Athletes must strive for performance excellence and personal excellence as well, with a positive mindset identified as making a vital 1% difference to performance.

You don’t have to be vying for a gold medal to benefit from training your brain. Try CogniFit’s specific brain training program for sports today!

A unique brain area linked to higher cognitive capacities

In a paper published in the science journal Neuron, Oxford University researchers have identified an area of the human brain that appears to be linked to our higher cognitive capacities, such as planning, decision-making, experiential learning, understanding and generating speech. It is unlike anything in the brains of other primates.

Senior researcher Professor Matthew Rushworth of Oxford University’s Department of Experimental Psychology said that “We tend to think that being able to plan into the future, be flexible in our approach and learn from others are things that are particularly impressive about humans. We’ve identified an area of the brain that appears to be uniquely human and is likely to have something to do with these cognitive powers.”

The Oxford team recruited 25 healthy people between the ages of 20 and 45, including 14 women and 11 men, for the study and scanned each person twice. MRI imaging was used to identify key components in the area of the human brain called the ventrolateral frontal cortex. An area of the brain involved in many of the highest aspects of cognition and language, and is only present in humans and other primates. Some parts are implicated in psychiatric conditions like ADHD, drug addiction or compulsive behavior disorders. The study also investigated how these components were connected up with other brain areas. The results were then compared with equivalent MRI data gathered from 25 macaque monkeys.

Language is affected when other parts are damaged after stroke or neurodegenerative disease. A better understanding of the neural connections and networks involved should help the understanding of changes in the brain that go along with these conditions. Professor Rushworth explained that “the brain is a mosaic of interlinked areas. We wanted to look at this very important region of the frontal part of the brain and see how many tiles there are and where they are placed”.

From the MRI data, scientists identified 12 distinct areas of the ventrolateral frontal cortex that worked in different ways across all the individuals. Professor Rushworth says that “Each of these 12 areas has its own pattern of connections with the rest of the brain, a sort of neural fingerprint, telling us it is doing something unique”.

For the next stage of the study, researchers compared the 12 areas in the human brain region with the organization of the monkey prefrontal cortex and discovered something unique to the human brains. The brain scans were strikingly similar at first, with 11 of the 12 areas of the ventrolateral frontal cortex having little or no difference. One tile of the human cortex, however, had no similarity to that of the monkeys: an area called the lateral frontal pole prefrontal cortex.

First author Franz-Xaver Neubert of Oxford University said that “’we have established an area in human frontal cortex which does not seem to have an equivalent in the monkey at all. This area has been identified with strategic planning and decision making as well as “multi-tasking”.

Hearing loss associated to brain shrinkage with age

A new study, published online on January 9th 2014 in the journal NeuroImage, suggests that older adults with impaired hearing may have a faster rate of brain shrinkage as they age.

Researchers at John Hopkins University, in Baltimore, and the National Institute on Ageing, looked at the on-going Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Ageing to compare the brains of older adults with normal hearing and those with impaired hearing. The Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Ageing started in 1958 by the National Institute on Ageing to monitor several health features in thousands of men and women.

The study focused on 126 adults aged from 56 to 86 years old who had yearly MRI brain scans for up to ten years. Fifty-one showed some degree of hearing loss, mostly mild to moderate; these people might have trouble hearing in a restaurant, for example. After analyzing participants MRIs over a decade, researchers found that the brains of those with impaired hearing shrank faster than the brains of those with normal hearing, and that the atrophy was concentrated in the parts of the brain related to hearing. Participants with impaired hearing lost more than an additional cubic centimeter of brain tissue each year.

Dr. Frank Lin, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and the lead researcher on the new study, says this research gives credence to the theory that “hearing loss is leading to changes in the brain structure or function.” As the saying goes, when it comes to muscles, use it or lose it. It seems that, in a similar way, if not used the part of the brain involved with hearing (as well as speech processing and memory) also begins to atrophy.

Dr. Frank Lin says the current theory is that hearing impairment does not directly cause dementia but that it may worsen problems in brain function. “It serves as another hit on the system, which could lead to an earlier expression of dementia,” he says.  But the “biggest question,” Lin said, is whether treating hearing impairment can slow changes in brain structure and, more importantly, delay dementia

Dr. Frank Lin and his colleagues say they plan to eventually examine whether treating hearing loss early can reduce the risk of associated health problems, but results won’t be in for several years. For now, though, he recommends correcting hearing problems if at all possible.

SharpBrains mentions CogniFit’s partnership with the pharmaceutical company Bayer.

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