Tag Archives: neuroplasticity

Brain Gym: 16 Activities That Will Help Your Brain Stay Younger

Brain Gym for a healthy mind. A few years ago, we started to learn about the importance of training our brains. Today we know that in order to enjoy life to the fullest, our brain needs to be in shape as well. Find out the 16 brain gym exercises that will help your brain health.

Life expectancy has risen, and as we age, our brain starts deteriorating. A few good habits can help slow down cognitive aging and help keep the human brain in shape. In this article, we’ll talk to you about different brain gym strategies that will help you build new neural connections and boost your cognitive reserve. Lifestyle and our habits play an important role in the physical changes that our brains undergo. The sooner you start training your brain, the longer it will stay in shape. Sign up for your brain gym!

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Is it really possible to improve a specific cognitive skill by training with a brain gym routine? Sometimes you may find yourself wondering if a brain gym routine will actually make it possible to improve our memory, planning, spatial orientation, processing speed, reasoning, creativity, etc. While there isn’t any magic recipe to keep cognitive aging at bay, you can start some exercises to slow it down and improve cognitive reserve. Take your brain seriously and try some of the brain gym exercises that we have below.

Brain Gym can your brain plasticity. The brain has the amazing ability to adapt and change depending on our experiences. Brain plasticity is what makes this adaptation easy, and is what allows us to help mold and adapt our brains to different circumstances or surroundings.

There is one notable type of brain plasticity, called functional compensatory plasticity, that causes a small group of elderly people to achieve almost the same amount or higher cognitive activity than their younger counterparts, despite their age. If we think of the average aging individual, we can expect their cognition to slowly decline as they age. However, in the case of functional compensatory plasticity, the brain actually compensates for the lack of cognitive activity, ultimately activating more brain parts than others of their own age or supposed cognitive state.

Brain gyms help the brain adapt, which we have shown is an essential part to brain health, especially as we age. Changing some simple habits and practicing mentally stimulating activities can help keep the brain active which makes it easier for the brain to create neurons and connections. Take a look at our suggestions and put them into action.

Brain Gym: 10 ways to keep your brain sharp

Exercising these powerful cognitive skills helps regenerate neural connections. Brain gyms can help slow down cognitive decline, which can delay the effects of neurodegenerative effects.

1. Brain gym while you Travel

Travelling stimulates our brains, exposes to new cultures and languages, and helps us learn about the history of a new place. According to a study, having contact with different cultures gives us the ability to learn about different cultures, which helps improve creativity and has important cognitive benefits.

Brain Gym: If you have the resources to travel, do it! Visit new places, emerge yourself in the culture, and learn from the natives. If you can’t travel, make an effort to surround yourself with different cultures and people, and visit new places right in your own city.

2. Brain gym while you Listen to music

Listening to music can be a great activity because music is a powerful stimulus for our brains. Certain studies have shown how listening to music activates the transmission of information between neurons, our ability to learn, and our memory. Listening to music can also slow neurodegenerative processes (this effect was only present in those who were familiar with music).

Listening to music can also positively affect our mood and activate almost all of our brain, which makes it a great way to stimulate the brain.

Brain Gym: You can add music to so many parts of your day. Turn on the radio when you’re cooking or driving in the car. Play your favorite “cardio” or “pump-up” playlist when you’re at the gym… and remember, it’s never too late to learn how to play an instrument! There are tons of video tutorials on YouTube that can help you get started.

3. Brain gym while enjoying nature

The best gym is being in nature. It helps us disconnect from our daily routines and obligations, and reduces stress and anxiety. According to this study, being in nature, whether it be out at a park or seeing trees from the window, helps reduce attentional fatigue. Living in areas with gardens or trees improves attention and inhibits our impulses. Being in nature also gets us moving and helps us increase the amount of physical exercise we do.

Brain Gym: Being in nature is good for our health and well-being. You don’t need to go live in the countryside to get these benefits- talking away in green areas, or even hanging some pictures of nature, can give us some of these benefits. Try to get away on the weekend and go to the mountain or beach. Find a great hiking route and make it a weekend activity. You’ll get some exercise and it’s a great brain gym!

4. Write things by hand and train your brain

Take handwritten notes rather than typing on a computer or tablet. Writing by hand is a brain gym exercise because it helps boost memory and learning, according to this study. Writing also helps us process and integrate learned information.

Brain Gym: Leave your laptop at home and get yourself a notebook. You can also think about getting a tablet that allows you to write and later turns your words into text.

5. Brain gym: Physical exercise

According to many studies like this one, doing and enjoying exercise created new neurons within our brain, improves learning, cognitive performance, and boosts neuroplasticity. A recent study established that starting physical exercise when there are already signs of dementia might not be that a beneficiary as starting while being completely healthy. Therefore, you should start exercising as soon as possible.

Brain Gym: According to studies, aerobic exercise is the best for us. Get out and run, dance, swim, skate, or even just walk around. Getting started can be difficult, but just think about the pay-off!

Brain gym and exercise

6. Brain gym: Keep your work area clean and organized

A recent study has shown that doing work that doesn’t challenge your brain, as well as working in an untidy environment, can actually cause damage to your brain health in the long-run.

Brain Gym: A clean work environment makes us feel calm, which allows our brain to work better. Throw out papers and things that you don’t need. Clean up your desk and the space around you.

7. Learn a language and exercise your brain

According to a study, speaking two or more languages helps protect from cognitive deterioration. The study discovered that bilingual people had a higher IQ and received higher points in the cognitive tests compared to others in their age group. This can happen even after learning a language as an adult.

Brain Gym: Sign up for a class in French or Spanish or Portuguese or any other language you’ve ever thought about learning! Try to watch movies in their original languages (with or without subtitles), you’ll start to pick up the sounds and your brain will get a great workout. Today, we have access to great resources online, all it takes is a little searching!

8. Brain gym: Sleep

According to a study, sleeping too much or too little is associated with cognitive aging. As an adult, it has been shown that less than 6 or more than 8 hours of sleep leads to worse cognitive scores as a consequence of premature aging in the brain.

The right amount of sleep is vital for the proper function of our bodies, as well as our well-being. Both sleeping too little and sleeping too much can have negative effects on cognitive performance, response time, recognizing errors, and attention.

Brain Gym: Try to keep an adequate sleep schedule by creating a routine. Try to go to sleep and wake up everyday at the same time. If your one of those people who tends to sleep too little, try going to bed a little earlier over time. Put your phone, TV, computer, etc. away at least 30 minutes before bedtime to reduce any symptoms of technological insomnia. Make sure your room is a comfortable temperature, there’s not too much light or sound coming in, and that your room is clean and ready to be slept in. Doing this can even help you become a morning person!

9. Brain Gym: Read

People who don’t read a lot have been shown to have lower cognitive performance compared to avid readers, according to a study. Those who don’t read often receive lower scores in processing speed, attention, language, and abstract processing.

According to researchers, this low performance in subjects who read little affects their brain’s ability to adapt after suffering from brain damage. More highly educated people use their brain’s resources to compensate for the cognitive deterioration due to aging. In others words, they have a higher level of functional compensatory plasticity, as we mentioned before. This can be applied the same was for people who read often.

Brain Gym: If you like to read, you’ve got it pretty easy. If you don’t like reading and it doesn’t appeal to do, don’t worry! There are tons of different genres to try out. You’ll find that some things are easier to read, like graphic novels. You can read magazines, newspapers, etc. about anything you like, and you’ll still get all the benefits of reading. It’s just a matter of keeping your brain active.

10. Brain gym: Practice yoga and meditation

Meditation can have long-term changes in your brain, according to this study. People who have been meditating for years have more gyri in the (ridges in the brain that are used in quickly processing information). This is also another proof of neuroplasticity, as our brain can adapt and change depending on our experiences.

According to another study, practicing yoga for 20 minutes improves speed and precision in working memory and inhibitory control (the ability to inhibit behavior when it’s necessary) tests. These measurements are associated with the ability to pay attention, and hold on to and use new information.

Yoga and meditation help us use our mental resources more efficiently, and helps us reduce stress and anxiety, which improves our performance.

Brain Gym: Meditation and yoga are “in” right now, so it shouldn’t be hard to find classes and get started. If you don’t want to go to a class, there are tons of instructors on YouTube to show you how to meditate and do yoga, without having to leave the house.

11. Brain gym: Eat well and avoid drugs

What we eat affects our brains. Eating well helps keep our brains young and prevents cognitive decline. We already know that there are “superfoods” can work together to help keep our bodies healthy. However, a diet of varied fruits, vegetables, beans, grains, and few processed foods, can also greatly improve our overall health. A healthy diet doesn’t only help prevent a large number of diseases caused by diet, but it also helps slow down physical and cognitive aging. Brain Gym comes also from the consumption of different nutrients. Watch below to discover how food affects your brain.

Alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs all contribute to an increased risk of suffering from different types of diseases and contributes to premature aging.

Brain Gym: If you want to learn how to eat well, you should talk to a nutritionist or doctor who can best guide you to the best diet for you. Don’t trust “miracle diets”, they don’t work and can be dangerous for your health. Choose fruits and vegetables over sweets and whole grains over white bread. Keep an eye on how much sugar and fat your eating, and cut out as much alcohol as possible. It can be hard to get started, but ask for stop smoking tips if you need it!

12. Brain Gym: Control your stress levels!

Take care of your mental health! Mental health issues and constantly thinking negatively affects our overall well-being. However, this study has shown that it also affects our brain in the long-term. Having suffered from depression or anxiety disorders increases the risk of having dementia.

Brain Gym: Control your stress levels with some relaxation techniques. Listening to relaxing music helps relieve stress, and practicing yoga or meditation can also help keep stress at bay. If you’re not sure if you have a mental health issue, get in touch with a mental health specialist.

13. Brain Gym: Try new things

New studies have shown that immersing yourself in new hobbies that require some kind of mental challenge helps improve and maintain cognitive function and can help prevent cognitive deterioration.

Brain Gym: Take the time to try to learn new things. It doesn’t matter if you’re good at them or not! The important thing is that you have fun and you challenge your brain. Try learning how to play chess, how to sew, take on a DIY project, draw, write, learn how to play an instrument, etc.

14. Brain Gym: Spend time with your family and friends

Social relationships stimulate our brains, which helps keep it active and younger for longer. Socializing also helps reduce stress and improves our mood, which helps with our overall mental health.

Brain Gym: Spend more time with your loved ones (especially those who transmit positivity), meet new people, make new groups of friends, etc.

15. Brain Gym: Use your brain whenever you can

“Use it or lose it”, kind of. The best way to make sure your brain keeps working the best that it can is to constantly use and challenge it. We have access to new technology, which makes our lives easier, but it also makes our brain lazy. Before, we had to make an effort to learn and remember something. Now, many tasks have become computerized, which makes our brains go on autopilot. Try to give your brain the chance to work before reaching for the calculator or the GPS or Google.

Brain Gym: Try to solve math problems without a calculator, limit how often you use your GPS, and try to remember information on your own.

Memorize a list of words. For example, try to memorize your grocery list before leaving the house and time how long it takes you to remember it.

In the following video, you’ll see how you can help your brain work well and stay young. We can help our brains create new neurons, even as adults. Sandrine Thuret explains how we can help create new neurons.

This post was originally written in Spanish by CogniFit psychologist Andrea Garcia Cerdan

Not Sure If You Should Take The Leap? Cognitive Benefits of Learning Foreign Languages

We may not look back on our foreign language classes at school with much fondness.However, after reading about the following benefits of learning foreign languages, we may all be searching for our Spanish or French class notes.

Learning a foreign language can be difficult. The older you are, the more challenging it can be. Nevertheless, learning a new language can have a range of cognitive, health and cultural benefits.

Cognitive Benefits of Learning Foreign Languages

Benefits of learning foreign languages: Beneficial for traveling, learning and communicating

Learning a foreign language means you can explore a whole new culture, country, or continent through the native tongue. Learning a foreign language also allows us to communicate with individuals who do not speak our mother tongue.

Benefits of learning foreign languages: Stay young and stave off disease

Research has found that bilingualism can help counteract cognitive decline. In fact, it was noted that bilingual older adults had better memory than monolingual older adults. Furthermore, there has been links between bilingualism and Alzheimer’s, showing the correlation to speaking more than one language and preventing Alzheimer’s disease. Additionally, Evy Woumans and colleagues have found that in older adults diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the rate of progression is slower in bilingual patients compared to monolingual patients.

Benefits of learning foreign languages: Be more creative

A review into the cognitive correlates of bilingualism, by Olusola Adesope and colleagues found that bilingualism has been associated with enhanced creativity and abstract thinking. Essentially, being proficient in a foreign language can make you more creative and can help you think outside the box.

Benefits of learning foreign languages: Improved problem-solving skills

Bilinguals tend to have better problem-solving skills than monolinguals. In addition, bilinguals tend to perform better on tasks like the Stroop test, which requires an element of conflict management. Being fluent in a foreign language has been linked to enhanced inhibitory control ability. This means that bilinguals are better at ignoring information that interferes with their ability to complete a task. The message here seems to be that learning a foreign language can help us to solve problems faster and help us to ignore irrelevant information.

Benefits of learning foreign languages: Better cognitive control

Researchers Viorica Marion and Anthony Shook tested bilinguals in experiments of task switching. Participants were required to switch between sorting objects based on colour and by shape. Compared to monolinguals, bilinguals displayed high levels of cognitive control. They find it easier to switch between tasks compared to monolinguals. Essentially, learning a foreign language may improve our task switching ability. Researchers propose enhanced cognitive control is due to the ability to balance two languages. Bilingual language processing networks for both languages are active at the same time. As both languages are activated, the individual responds in the correct language by learning to inhibit one language over the other. By doing this, bilinguals improve their inhibitory control mechanism, to the point where when processing language, the process of inhibiting the language that isn’t needed at a particular time becomes second nature. Wondering how you can train your brain and cognitive skills? Try some fun brain games!

Benefits of learning foreign languages: Changes brain structure

Bilingualism has been found to increase neuroplasticity. Researcher Rosanna Olsen and colleagues investigated structural brain differences in monolinguals and bilinguals using fMRI. Scans revealed that bilinguals display increased activation in the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC plays an important role in tasks which require control). This part of the brain is associated with attention and inhibition. The researchers found that the hippocampus and the left superior temporal gyrus are more malleable in bilinguals (The hippocampus is associated with memory and the superior temporal gyrus is associated with sound processing). Furthermore, these structures as well as the frontal lobe are thicker in bilingual individuals (The frontal lobes are associated with executive functions such as problem solving and executive control-need some exercises to improve executive functions?). Increased volumes of white matter have been noted in frontal and temporal lobes. According to researcher Christos Pilatsikas and colleagues, when learning a second language age doesn’t matter, as adults who have learnt a foreign language have shown increase white matter. Being proficient in a foreign language can improve connections of brain regions that control our memory, executive functioning, attention and inhibition processes.

Benefits of learning foreign languages: Improves attention and attention control

Studies have shown that on tasks of attention control, bilinguals tend to perform better than monolinguals. Also bilinguals tend to have a higher attention capacity. Bilinguals are better at filtering out unwanted information and find it easier to focus on more relevant information.

Improves ability to process information– Benefits of learning foreign languages

Being bilingual can benefit sensory and information processing. Jennifer Krizman and colleagues present participants with target sounds embedded in background noise. Compared to monolinguals, bilinguals found it easier to filter out background noise. The researchers found bilingualism enhances sound processing and sustained attention. The study found that bilinguals process sound similarly to musicians. This means that one of the benefits of learning a foreign language is being able to improve the efficiency of the brain’s auditory system, and enhance our ability to distinguish between similar sounds.

Benefits of learning foreign languages

Enhances working memory– Benefits of learning foreign languages

Managing two languages puts increased pressure our working memory. To ease the pressure, bilinguals become more efficient at information processing. Combining this with their enhanced inhibitory control ability, a bilingual’s working memory capacity and efficiency us greater than monolinguals.

Learning multiple foreign languages

We have already established that being fluent in a foreign language can improve our information processing abilities and enhance our sustained attention. As a result of these enhanced processes, bilinguals find it easier to learn a third or even fourth foreign language.

Learning a foreign language can have numerous benefits on our cognitive functions. It improves executive functions, cognitive control, attention, and memory. In addition, neuroimaging studies have revealed that learning a foreign language in later life can actually grow the brain and improve the connections between different brain regions. What is even more interesting is that learning a foreign language can counteract cognitive decline and slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Regardless of the age at which we learn a foreign language, it is still beneficial for our brains to do so. So, although it may be a little more difficult, it is clearly never too late to reap the benefits of learning foreign languages! Encouraging young children to learn a foreign language may benefit them in later life, so schools should look at making learning a foreign language a compulsory part of the curriculum. Aside from the benefits to cognition and the brain, for all of us who have the travelling bug and want to explore new cultures, learning the lingo is obviously the best place to start!

Do you have any questions or comments? Leave me a note below! 🙂

References

Adesope, O. O., Lavin, T., Thompson, T., & Ungerleider, C. (2010). A systematic review and meta-analysis of the cognitive correlates of bilingualism. Review of Educational Research80(2), 207-245.

Krizman, J., Marian, V., Shook, A., Skoe, E., & Kraus, N. (2012). Subcortical encoding of sound is enhanced in bilinguals and relates to executive function advantages. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences109(20), 7877-7881.

Mårtensson, J., Eriksson, J., Bodammer, N. C., Lindgren, M., Johansson, M., Nyberg, L., & Lövdén, M. (2012). Growth of language-related brain areas after foreign language learning. NeuroImage63(1), 240-244.

Marian, V., & Shook, A. (2012, September). The cognitive benefits of being bilingual. In Cerebrum: the Dana forum on brain science (Vol. 2012). Dana Foundation.

Pliatsikas, C., Moschopoulou, E., & Saddy, J. D. (2015). The effects of bilingualism on the white matter structure of the brain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences112(5), 1334-1337.

Woumans, E., Santens, P., Sieben, A., Versijpt, J., Stevens, M., & Duyck, W. (2015). Bilingualism delays clinical manifestation of Alzheimer's disease.Bilingualism: Language and Cognition18(03), 568-574.

Costa, A., & Sebastián-Gallés, N. (2014). How does the bilingual experience sculpt the brain?. Nature Reviews Neuroscience15(5), 336-345.

Olsen, R. K., Pangelinan, M. M., Bogulski, C., Chakravarty, M. M., Luk, G., Grady, C. L., & Bialystok, E. (2015). The effect of lifelong bilingualism on regional grey and white matter volume. Brain research1612, 128-139.

Saidi, L. G., & Ansaldo, A. I. (2015). Can a Second Language Help You in More Ways Than One?. AIMS neurosci1, 52-57.

Left Brain, Right Brain: 9 Ways Our Brain Hemispheres Work Together

What are the functions of each brain hemisphere? What does each half of our brains do? Is it true that the left side is the analytic hemisphere and the right side the emotional side of the brain? Is it true that the ‘right brain’ is the creative one and the ‘left brain’ is the logical one? In this article, we will reveal everything you need to know about brain hemispheres.

Brain Hemispheres

We have often been told that the left hemisphere of the brain is the analytic, mathematical, and logical side, the side which is in charge of reasoning. You’ve probably also heard that the right hemisphere of the brain is the emotional, creative side.

In fact, people often use this difference as a way to define personality, referring to people as either left-brained or right-brained. “If you are a creative, sensitive, and passionate person, then you use your right hemisphere more; if you are an analytical, organized, and thoughtful person you use your left hemisphere more.” We hear that all the time, so let’s check some facts to see whether there is any truth to this common saying. 

How the Two Hemispheres Work

How do the brain hemispheres work?

There is still a lot left to discover about brain hemispheres but here are some facts we do know:

  • The brain is composed of two well-differentiated halves called hemispheres. These halves are connected by a structure called the corpus callosum, which facilitates communication between the hemispheres. These two hemispheres are in constant communication, and in most activities, both work equally.
  • Experts suggest that our level of intelligence is directly related to the quality of the connection between hemispheres. The more connected they are, the more intellectual we will be, such is the example of Einstein’s brain.
  • Each hemisphere is responsible for the activity on the opposite side of the body. That is, the right hemisphere will be responsible for the movements of the left side of the body and vice versa. Therefore, an injury to the left brain will have an impact on the right side of the body.
  • The processing of visual and auditory stimuli, spatial manipulation, facial perception and artistic ability is found bilaterally, although they may show some superiority in the right hemisphere.
  • Contrary to what was thought until recently, according to a study, the visual processing of numbers is performed by both hemispheres equally.

What Do The Two Sides of the Brain Do?

The Right Hemisphere of the Brain:

It deals, to a greater extent, with the following functions:

  • The consciousness of oneself.
  • Recognizing our image in a mirror.
  • Facial recognition.
  • Processing the emotional part of language, such as prosody and intonation.
  • Feelings associated with intense romantic love.
  • Managing visual-spatial attention.

The Left Hemisphere of the Brain

The left hemisphere of the brain is responsible for:

  • Understanding and producing language.
  • Mathematical abilities and recalling facts.
  • Processing attractive faces.

In the next video, Ian Mcgilchrist explains why our brain is divided into two hemispheres, and what each one is responsible for.

The Two Hemispheres and Brain Lateralization

Brain lateralization is the idea that some brain functions rely more heavily on one hemisphere than on another. One example of this is when we process language. The left hemisphere is in charge of language processing for the most part, whereas the right hemisphere only processes verbal information in relation to emotion. However, it has recently been discovered that speech is processed in both hemispheres equally, so perhaps language is not as lateralized as we previously thought. 

Likewise, it was believed that a left-handed person’s brain was less lateralized for language development. That is, it was believed that these people would use more of the right brain hemisphere for language, contrary to the general right-handed population. It has been proven that this only happens in 1% of the left-handed population. 

It was even found that the degree of lateralization of some brain functions may vary from individual to individual.

Our brain is lateralized in some of its functions, however, most of these happen in both hemispheres. If a brain region or even a whole hemisphere is damaged or destroyed, other neighboring areas or even the opposite hemisphere may, in some cases, take over the activity typically performed by the damaged region. When brain damage interferes in the connections between one area and another, alternative connections can be developed to bridge the difficulties. This is only possible thanks to the brain’s great ability to adapt, which is called brain plasticity.

Brain Hemispheres: Do we use one more than the other?

A study from the University of Utah, USA, dismantled these myths:

There is no evidence that people use one of the brain hemispheres more than the other. This group of researchers identified brain networks in charge of process lateralized functions (brain functions that are processed more in one hemisphere than another), to see if it was true that some people used more one of the brain hemispheres more than the other.

During the study, the researchers analyzed the brains of 1,000 people and found that no individual was consistently using one hemisphere over another. They concluded that no personality type is related to the greater use of the left or right hemisphere.

Therefore, it is false that some people use one brain hemisphere more than another depending on their personality. Some functions may be specialized in a particular cerebral hemisphere, but the truth is that we use both hemispheres equally. 

Some functions may be specific to a particular brain hemisphere; however, we use both brain hemispheres equally. Even though one hemisphere is specific for a function, it will always work better in continuous communication with the other hemisphere.Scientists can’t even establish that the right hemisphere is our creative brain. Creativity is a very complex process. According to a study, creative thinking does not seem to depend on a single mental process or brain region. Nor is it particularly associated with the right brain, attention, low level of activation, or synchronization with the alpha waves emitted by our brain.

Where Did the Myth of the Right Brain and the Left Brain Come From?

This myth arose from the misinterpretation of Roger Sperry’s experiments on divided brains. Studying the effects of epilepsy, Sperry found that cutting corpus callosum could reduce or eliminate epileptic seizures.

However, these patients also suffered other symptoms after communication channels between the brain hemispheres were severed. For example, many brain-split patients found themselves unable to name objects that were processed on the right side (those in the left visual field) but were able to name those processed on the left side (those in the right field of vision).

From this information, Sperry suggested that language was controlled exclusively by the left side of the brain.

We hoped you liked our article and please feel free to comment below.

This article is originally in Spanish written by Andrea García Cerdán, translated by Alejandra Salazar. 

Synapses: How Your Brain Communicates

A synapse is the space between two neurons which allows for neural communication, or synaptic transmission. Synapses are found throughout the body, not just located in the brain. They project onto muscles to allow muscle contraction, as well as enable a multitude of other functions that the nervous system covers.

It might be helpful to familiarize yourself with neuron cell body and structure and function when understanding the synapse!

Synapses

Parts of a Synapse

As a synapse is the gap in between two neurons, we need to establish which neuron sends out the signals and which neuron receives those signals.

Parts of a Synapse: The Role of the Presynaptic Neuron

The presynaptic neuron is the neuron that initiates the signal. At many synapses in the body, presynaptic neurons are vesicles filled with neurotransmitters. When the presynaptic neuron is excited by an action potential, the electrical signal propagates along its axon towards the axon terminal. This excitation signals the vesicles in the presynaptic neuron, filled with neurotransmitters, to fuse with the membrane of the axon terminal. This fusion allows for the neurotransmitters to be dumped into the synaptic cleft.

Once the neurotransmitters are released, they can act on receptors on the postsynaptic neuron.

Types of neurotransmitters

Parts of a Synapse: The Role of the Postsynaptic Neuron

The postsynaptic neuron is the neuron that receives the signal. These signals are received by the neuron’s dendrites. When there are neurotransmitters present in the synapse, they travel across the gap in order to bind to receptors on the postsynaptic neuron. When a neurotransmitter binds to a receptor on the postsynaptic neuron’s dendrite, it can trigger an action potential. That action potential can then be propagated and influence further communication.

Where Are Synapses Located in the Brain?

Synapses are found throughout the nervous system. They allow for complex thought, coordinated movement, and most of our basic functions. Synapses are located in the brain and spinal cord, which make up the central nervous system, and the peripheral nervous system, which includes neural projections onto muscle cells.

The Neuromuscular Junction

A good example of the location of synapses in the body is the neuromuscular junction. A neuromuscular junction is made up of a motor neuron and a muscle fiber, which is part of the peripheral nervous system. In this case, there is no postsynaptic neuron, but the muscle fiber has a specialized area that acts synonymously to how a postsynaptic neuron would respond. This area is called the motor end plate and has receptors that bind with the neurotransmitters released into the synapse.

In a neuromuscular junction, presynaptic neurons release acetylcholine as the neurotransmitter. At the neuromuscular junction, acetylcholine excites the muscle fiber and causes muscle contraction.

The presynaptic neuron in the neuromuscular junction needed to be told to release acetylcholine into the synapse. This doesn’t occur through the neuron’s own volition, but rather through a series of other neurons communicating with each other through synapses.

What do Synapses do?

It has been established that synapses are important in neural communication, but what do synapses actually do? How do they really allow for neural communication, and who starts the conversation?

When introducing the role of the presynaptic neuron above, the excitative qualities of an action potential were mentioned. Action potentials are the way that neurons can send information they receive down their axons and, hopefully, initiate the continuation of the signal to another neuron. These action potentials are created by a depolarizing current.

Action potentials allow for electrical signals to be sent down a neuron’s axon, and then the signal can be transmitted to the other neurons by a synapse. As stated before by introducing the role of the presynaptic neuron, neurotransmitters are released into the synapse in order for the signal to be transmitted to the next neuron. The chemical release is then received by the postsynaptic neuron and then converted back into an electrical signal in order to reach other neurons.

Although, not all synapses function on chemical or neurotransmitter release. Many synapses in the brain are purely electrical.

Types of Synapses

In the nervous system there are two main types of synapses: chemical synapses and electrical synapses. Thus far, for simplicity and understanding the basics of how a synapse functions only chemical synapses have been discussed. This poses the question: why does the nervous system need two types of synapses?

Types of Synapses: Chemical Synapses

Chemical synapses are any type of synapse that uses neurotransmitters in order to conduct an impulse over the small gap in between the presynaptic and postsynaptic neurons. These types of synapses are not in physical contact with each other. Since the transmission of a signal depends on the release of chemicals, a signal can only flow in one direction. This direction is downward from presynaptic to the postsynaptic neuron. As previously stated, these types of neurons are widely spread throughout the body.

The chemicals released in these types of synapses ways excite the following neuron. The neurotransmitters can bind to the receptors on the postsynaptic neuron and have an inhibitory effect as well. When inhibition occurs, signal propagation is prevented from traveling to other neurons.

Chemical synapses are the most abundant type of synapse in the body. This is because various neurotransmitters and receptors are able to interpret signals in a large combination. For instance, a neurotransmitter and receptor combination may inhibit a signal on one postsynaptic neuron, but excite a large amount of other postsynaptic neurons. Chemical synapses allow for flexibility of signaling that makes it possible for humans to engage in high-level tasks. However, this flexibility comes at a cost. Chemical synapses have a delay due to the need for the neurotransmitter to diffuse across the synapse and bind to the postsynaptic neuron. This delay is very small but still is an important point when comparing the two types of synapses.

Types of Synapses: Electrical Synapses

Synapses

Electrical synapses are types of synapses that use electricity to conduct impulses from one neuron to the other. These synapses are in direct contact with each other through gap junctions. Gap junctions are low resistance bridges that make it possible for the continuation of an action potential to travel from a presynaptic neuron to a postsynaptic neuron.

Due to their physical contact, electrical synapses are able to send signals in both directions, unlike chemical synapses. Their physical contact and the use of sole electricity make it possible for electrical synapses to work extremely fast. Transmission is also simple and efficient at electrical synapses because the signal does not need to be converted.

Another key difference between chemical and electrical synapses is that electrical synapses can only be excitatory. Being excitatory means that an electrical synapse can only increase a neuron’s probability of firing an action potential. As opposed to being inhibitory, which means that it decreases a neuron’s probability of firing an action potential. This can only be done by neurotransmitters.

Despite being extremely fast, these types of excitatory signals can not be carried over great lengths. Electrical synapses are mainly concentrated in specialized brain areas where there is a need for very fast action.

The best example of this is the large amount of electrical synapses in the retina, the part of the eye that receives light. Vision and visual perception are our dominant senses, and our eyes are constantly receiving visual sensory information. This information also runs on a feedback loop when we interact with our environment, which means that we receive information from our surroundings and immediately create an appropriate response to it. This is why it makes sense that electrical synapses are seen in a large concentration here. The fast action, multiple directions, and efficiently all allow for prime functionality.

Synapses in Neuroscience

Understanding synapses allow neuroscientists to further understand how communication within the brain works. This is extremely important when trying to decipher causes, and eventually, develop treatments for neurological diseases and disorders.

Knowing about synapse function is not just beneficial to neuroscientists, it is beneficial for anyone with a brain! Increased synaptic density can improve the quality of life for anyone, it is essentially a tactic for making your brain work smarter.

Natural Ways to Improve Your Synapses

1. Reduce Stress

Too much stress, as well as long periods of stress, can have harmful impacts on the body, especially the brain and nervous system. By reducing stress, you are reducing the amount of cortisol that is circulating throughout your body. Cortisol is important if you need to outrun a bear, but elevated levels in your daily life can damage chemical synapses all over the body. Stress and aging are also closely related, so controlling your stress levels may help you prevent early aging.

Chemical synapses are susceptible to desensitization, which will occur is abnormally high concentrations of a neural transmitter are fighting to stimulate a neuron.

2. Stimulate Your Brain With CogniFit Brain Games and Cognitive Assessments

It is important, at any stage in life, to keep your brain stimulated. Our synapses play an important role in keeping our brains healthy and helping them improve over time, rather than fall victim to the natural cognitive decline that occurs as we age. With the consistent training and challenging of the brain, the synapses work to perform better and more efficiently, ultimately making it possible to improve the cognitive function that may have seemed lost. This is the idea behind brain or neuroplasticity and is the basis of CogniFit’s program.

CogniFit’s  brain training system works by adapting the games and tasks to each user’s cognitive level, ensuring that the brain, its neurons, and all of the synapses involved are being trained and challenged as efficiently as possible.

3. Exercise

Exercise is very important in keeping the brain healthy. People often get frustrated within the first few weeks of a new workout regime when physical changes are not yet visible. It turns out that the first changes of regular exercise are actually neurological, starting in the brain. Exercising promotes brain growth by increasing oxygen levels in the brain. Brain growth first starts at the synaptic level. Read more about the benefits of exercise on the brain!

Your Synapses

Hopefully, now that you’re familiar with the basic structure, ins and outs, functions, and types of synapses in the brain you can think about what is happening on a microscopic level to ensure your body is functioning at top notch. Small improvements on the synapse level can have a large effect on your overall health.

Test Yourself!

1. What is a presynaptic neuron?
2. What is a postsynaptic neuron?
3. What is one difference between an electrical and chemical synapse

15 Ways to Train Your Brain Before School Starts

Summer is coming to a close soon for many of us. Going back to school can be exciting for those of us who love to work our minds to the fullest every single day. However, the majority of us tend to suffer from “Summer Brain Drain,” where our brains become lazy due to severe learning loss after the school year finishes. This feeling of inner lethargy overtakes most of us as we spend our vacation months in full relaxation mode. If you feel you have suffered from the pains of summer brain drain for the past few months, then don’t worry! There’s still plenty of time to train your brain before school starts so that we can enter into the new school year with a productive attitude and a strong brain ready for success!

4. How long is the normal summer vacation?
  • In the US, most schools have a 3 month summer vacation

5. How long does it take students to forget almost all of the information they've learned?
  • We start forgetting information as soon as 1 day after learning new information, but after 30 days we only remember about 2-3% of what we've learned!

6. When students return back to school after summer vacation, how long does it take them (on average) to re-learn all the material they were taught the previous school year?
  • According to Dr. Harris Cooper, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, students lose about 1-3 months of learning during summer break. This means that teachers must invest at least 4-6 weeks in order to re-teach past material that students should already know coming into the new school year. Therefore, if students return to school at the beginning of September, they might be spending all their school days re-learning old material until Halloween.

7. Which of the following activities DOESN'T keep your brain sharp?
  • Watching TV is a passive activity and requires very little work on our brain's part. Do something that makes your brain work!

8. Is sleep good or bad for our memory?
  • Sleep is always good, as long as it's restorative and not out of boredom. Our bodies need sleep to help us integrate all of the new information we've learned!

One great point to note is that anyone can strengthen his or her brain power at any age! Many people have the misconception that only adolescents and adults in their 20s to 30s have the potential to increase their brain stamina, but this is not true. Due to neuroplasticity, where the brain gradually forms new neural pathways and reacts to changing circumstances, our brains have the ability to adapt to any situation, even in old age.

Neuroplasticity is what will guide our brains to reach its ultimate manpower. Once you build positive learning habits and regularly engage in beneficial activities for your brain, the neurons in your brain will increase and the pre-existing ones will be strengthened even more than before. This will help you to improve in your cognitive abilities, enhance your learning potential, and widen your field of memory.

Here are 15 Tips to Train Your Brain Before School Starts:

1. Exercise

Probably one of the most important ways to keep your brain in tip-top shape is to exercise! Working out your body will increase the levels of oxygen flowing to your brain and will reduce your risk for disorders that lead to memory loss, like Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. It can even prevent diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Usually, for patients suffering from many physical and mental illnesses, their first suggestion for wellness is to exercise. Even if you’re not really into cardio or heavy-weight training, a simple 30-minute jog will do just the trick!

Exercising regularly enhances the release of special neurotransmitters called endorphins. These include dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, which contribute to your overall mood and reduce your stress and anxiety levels.

Also, exercise contributes to neuroplasticity by boosting growth factors and stimulating new interneuron connections.

2. Read

If you want to improve your brain functioning on multiple levels, then you should read more in your spare time. Whether it be from fictional novels to real-life narratives to articles in your favorite magazine, reading is one of the best ways to strengthen the higher-order thinking processes of your brain. Plus, reading allows you to become more creative in your thoughts, your actions, and your conversations with others!

In a study performed at Emory University titled, “Short and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain,” researchers found that becoming immersed in a fictional novel enhances connections of neurons in the brain and improves overall brain function. Also, they found that reading fiction was found to strengthen a reader’s ability to put himself in another person’s shoes, empathize, and imagine in a way similar to actual visualization (meaning, the readers were able to imagine the stories read as though they were actual movies being watched).

To find out more about how reading enhances brain functioning, check out this article: “Reading Fiction Improves Brain Connectivity and Functioning,” by Christopher Bergland.

3. Learn a new language

It doesn’t matter how old you are. It is never too late to diversify your tongue with a new language! In a study led by Dr. Thomas Bak at Edinburgh’s School of Philosophy, Psychology, and Language Sciences, he found that young adults proficient in a second language performed significantly better on attention and concentration tests than their counterparts who only knew one language, irrespective of whether they had learned that language during infancy, childhood, or adolescence.

If you feel it might be difficult to learn a new language, then there are plenty of easy resources available today. Programs like Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, Mondly by ATi Studios and more offer apps that can be downloaded on your smartphone so you can gradually work your way into different languages. You can tune-in to videos on the Internet with instructors who specialize in various languages. Also, foreign films are great to watch if you really want to pick up a second language like a pro! Try watching a foreign film with the subtitles on once or twice, then watch it again a few times without the subtitles and see how many phrases and expressions you understand.

4. Old-Fashioned Puzzles

If you want to increase your cognitive abilities, then regular puzzles are great! They train your brain so that you become better in problem-solving skills and recognition of minor details. To get working, you should try your hand at jigsaw puzzles, Sudoku, crossword puzzles, word searches, and even games of “Where’s Waldo?”

5. Get involved in a brain training program

Many companies today have developed amazing resources for you to use to boost your brain power. To cater to your convenience, CogniFit brain games offers personalized brain training programs that will target your specific cognitive needs. They also have programs available to help with some learning disorders that may affect your little ones!

6. Challenge your learning capabilities!

Find a subject you are really interested in or a topic that you want to learn more about. Immerse yourself fully into the subject by utilizing all the free assets available at your fingertip. If you register with Coursera.org, they provide many college-level courses that you can follow in a variety of fields, either free of charge or for a small fee. You can follow special channels on social media pages like Crash Course or TedEd to gain plenty of useful knowledge. Also, subscribe to magazines and online newspapers that specialize in your favorite fields, like Psychology Today, Live Science, The New Yorker, and more.

7. Find an artsy way to express yourself

Dig deep down into your inner feelings and look for a means of bringing out your unique soul. Try a hand at drawing, painting, poetry, writing short stories/prose/spoken word, or just vent away in a journal! It will help to boost your creativity levels and diversify your brain wave patterns

8. Visit as many museums and live performances as you can

Museums and exhibits increase our exposure to different forms of art, innovative ideas, and great skills of fellow human beings. Do some research on local museums and try to devote a few hours in your free time to see what is available. Whether it be from fine art to photography, anatomy, feelings, or poetry, there are so many sites to visit. Museums, spoken word café nights, operas, or even high school orchestras are great to awaken the mind and get your creative juices flowing.

9. Recreational outdoor activities

Work your body in ways you have never done before. Become more in-tuned with nature or just try new activities. This will stimulate neuroplasticity in your brain so that you can adapt to new environments and enjoy yourself in the process. Try hiking, rafting, canoeing, rock-climbing, skiing, jet-surfing, and any other fun activity you can think of!

10. Memorize

One of the best ways to increase your brain’s potential is to learn how to memorize. Whether it be from a religious text, any special author’s quotes, song lyrics, poetry verses, you name it, try to memorize. That way, you will gain experience in what methods are best for you in retaining information. Some practical ways of memorizing particular statements, concepts, or ideas are:

a. Rote rehearsal

This involves repeating a phrase over and over again till you can recite it fluently without the help of others

b. Writing

Some people learn better when they copy information over repetitively!

c. Mnemonic devices

Come up with acronyms, cool and catchy phrases, or special tricks to try to remember special material

11. Take on a new hobby/learn a new skill

Challenge your brain so that it really works its neuroplasticity features by doing something that you either have never done before or you’re not so great at. Some suggestions are cooking, baking, gardening, sewing, weight-lifting, getting involved in a sport, writing, drawing, and more. The list is endless!

12. Eat healthy

Of course, your diet impacts the way your body functions, especially your brain! The right foods will impact how much energy you have and how much command your brain has over you. Eating a diet full of healthy nutrients such as those rich in greens, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds can support mental acuity and alertness.

Certain foods have shown to increase brain strength. For example, foods filled with Omega-3 Fatty Acids like salmon can improve brain function by increasing activity in your prefrontal cortex (which is associated with your working memory).

13. Get enough sleep

Sleep is extremely important to maintain a strong brain. Research suggests that the average adult needs 7.5 to 9 hours of sleep in order to avoid sleep deprivation. If this amount is not reached, then creativity, problem-solving abilities, and critical thinking skills are all compromised!

Studies have shown that even missing one night of sleep will increase the concentration of NSE and S-100B in the blood. These are biomarkers that are released as an alert signal that your brain is in an injurious condition and cannot function properly. When the blood is consumed with these substances, then this means that a severe amount of brain tissue has deteriorated.

14. Spend time with loved ones

Humans are social beings. We thrive on the relationships we have because they keep us well-grounded and motivated to be productive. Research shows that having meaningful friendships and a strong support system are vital to brain health. Studies from the Harvard School of Public Health found that senior citizens with the most social lives had the slowest rate of memory decline.

15. Be happy!

In our fast-paced society, one key factor that many of us forget to take care of is our emotional health. Stress, anger, worry, and anxiety are the brain’s worst enemies, yet many of us fail to realize that. Over time, chronic stress and anxiety destroys brain cells and damages the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain involved with forming new memories and retrieving old ones. To prevent stress from conquering your life, let go of all the major stressors in your life and just be happy! Positive and humanistic psychologists emphasize keeping an uplifting spirit as a way to reach one’s full potential (This was mainly emphasized in the works of Carl Rogers). If you want to stay happy and content with your lifestyle, then smile and laugh more. This will increase your levels of oxytocin secreted, which contributes to your overall feeling of satisfaction. Spend time with fun, carefree, and interesting people. Surround yourself with positive reminders to help lighten up your difficult days. Keep a list of all the things you are thankful for and don’t sweat the small things!

Sources: Source 1, Source 2, CogniFit

Brain Games: Mental Fitness, Fun, or Both? | AT&T Thread

Brain Games: Mental Fitness, Fun, or Both?

In the article on AT&T Thread, brain games and brain traning is questioned. By understanding what these applications do, we can better understand how to use them.

What do you want to achieve?

Brain training applications say that they can train certain parts of the brain in order to improve in various aspects of your life, like performing better at work, recalling names, and reducing stress. How does this happen? Studies have shown that it is possible to create new neural pathways in the brain, making it possible to overcome difficulties and improve assets. Brain plasticity or neuroplasticity allows the brain to create more of these neural pathways, which can enhance reaction time, processing speed, and global cognition.

Applications or websites like CogniFit, Elevate, and Fit Brain all claim to help improve cognitive areas such as memory, concentration, mental reflexes, and problem solving. Other applications are available that focus mainly on memory building.

There are also a range of games and apps used for relaxation and meditation.

Christi Durden, an RN in Seattle was quoted in the AT&T Thread article talking about her personal experience with brain games. “It’s both challenging and relaxing” she says. Durden mentions how working in the health care field makes one very conscious of the difficulties that memory loss causes. While she has no proof that the games have helped her memory, she claimed that they are entertaining and made her better at the individual game.

Brain Games: Mental Fitness, Fun, or Both? | AT&T Thread