Lifelong learning, literally: neuroplasticity for students, boomers, seniors…

What a month. We promised you with our blog title 7 months ago that we would be your “Window into the Brain Fitness Revolution”, but we couldn’t have predicted that CBS, Time Magazine, WSJ, NYT and other mainstream media would be such great allies in this effort.

Brain Fitness for All

Let’s start with (Wall Street Journal Science Editor) Sharon Begley’s article titled How The Brain Rewires Itself, based on her Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain book. She provides a fascinating overview, summarized as

FOR DECADES, THE PREVAILING DOGMA IN neuroscience was that the adult human brain is essentially immutable, hardwired, fixed in form and function, so that by the time we reach adulthood we are pretty much stuck with what we have. Yes, it can create (and lose) synapses, the connections between neurons that encode memories and learning… . The doctrine of the unchanging human brain has had profound ramifications. …But research in the past few years has overthrown the dogma. In its place has come the realization that the adult brain retains impressive powers of “neuroplasticity” — the ability to change its structure and function in response to experience. These aren’t minor tweaks either.

In short, the brain is not that different from a muscle (better said, a group of muscles). It can be trained. At any age. Not with magical pills or cures, but with focus and disciplined training.

Brain Fitness for Students

Just today we found out that Sharp sums in the head aim to blunt impact of TV, on a topic we have been discussing for a few weeks with several of our scientific advisors. We quote:

  • “Gilles de Robien, the Education Minister (in France), has ordered children to carry out between 15 and 20 minutes of calcul mental (mental arithmetics) every day from the age of 5.
  • Mr de Robien moved after a report from the French Science Academy said that children who practiced sums in their heads had better memories and quicker brains.
  • Questions for the final year of French primary school
  • Calculate in your head
    1. Half of 48, 72, 414, 826 and 1,040
    2. Three times 41, 52, 109, 212 and 503
    3. A third of 12, 66, 93, 309, 636 and 3,024
    4. 76-9, 987-9, 456-19, 497-19 and 564-29
    5. 15×4, 25×4, 30×4, 35×4, 40×4 and 45×4
  • (The answers in the article)

What a great mental training program, and example of the role schools can play in cultivating the minds of students and developing cognitive skills beyond the typical focus on traditional academic disciplines.

Talk about neuroscience applied to education: we will be reporting from a fascinating conference in San Francisco, February 15-17, titled Learning & the Brain: Enhancing Cognition and Emotions for Learning And Student Performance, sponsored by leading universities and the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives.

  • Speakers include a truly “Dream Team” of neuroscientists and educators such as Michael S. Gazzaniga, William C. Mobley, John D.E. Gabrieli, Robert M. Sapolsky, Robert Sylwester, and many many others. You can check the program here
  • The description of the event is: “Use this explosion of scientific knowledge to create new, powerful paradigms for teaching and healthcare. Cutting-edge discoveries in neuroscience may soon transform educational and clinical interventions by enhancing memory and cognition. Discover the influences of emotions, gender and the arts. Explore new ways to enhance cognition and to assess potential benefits and pitfalls of using pharmacology, technology and therapy to boost performance.”

The organizers of the conference extended a very kind offer to SharpBrains readers.

A) The normal price for the conference is $499 before January 30th, and $545 afterwards.

B) For SharpBrains readers, you can register at the reduced price of $475 if you do so before February 2nd. You can register here, making sure to write SharpBrains1 in the comments section

Brain Fitness for Seniors

A great Chicago Tribune article a couple of days ago, titled Seniors see improvement in brain-training classes, includes

  • “Over the next few years, we will see these [brain health] programs burst into the mainstream with great force,” predicted Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg, a clinical professor of neurology at New York University School of Medicine and co-founder of Sharp Brains, a company that evaluates and helps markets brain-fitness programs. A growing body of scientific studies supports the trend.”
  • “The major finding was stunning: Relatively short training regimens — 10 sessions of 1 to 1.5 hours each over five or six weeks — improved mental functioning as long as five years later. Booster sessions helped advance these gains, and some people found it easier to perform everyday tasks, such as managing finances, after mental workouts.”
  • “I think what this shows, conclusively, is that when healthy older people put effort into learning new things, they can improve their mental fitness,” said Michael Marsiske, a member of the research team and an associate professor at the University of Florida at Gainesville. “And even if structured learning is relatively brief, you should be able to see the benefits of that learning for some time to come.”
  • Not all training is alike, however. In the ACTIVE study, each form of mental training (for memory, speed or reasoning) affected only the function targeted without crossing over into other realms. Training results were strongest for speed of mental processing and weakest for memory.
  • “What this tells us is that specific brain functions may need different types of training,” said Dr. Jeffrey Elias, chief of the cognitive-aging program at the National Institute on Aging, which helped fund the ACTIVE study.
  • “With that in mind, researchers probably will design comprehensive programs with multiple types of training to forestall age-related mental decline, Elias predicted.”

Brain Fitness for All

Students and seniors can train their brains. Which means: all the rest of us can do so, too. More and more science-based and structured programs will appear-now there are only a handful of them. We will keep you informed in this blog and site.

To help advance public awareness, the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives is organizing the Brain Awareness Week 2007, March 12-18, 2007, with a plethora of activities worldwide. You can check the US ones here, including our Exercising Our Brains class organized with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

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