Cancer survivors sometimes suffer from a condition known as “chemo fog”—a cognitive impairment caused by repeated chemotherapy. A study hints at a controversial idea: that brain-training software might help lift this cognitive cloud.
Various studies have concluded that cognitive training can improve brain function in both healthy people and those with medical conditions, but the broader applicability of these results remains controversial in the field.
In a study published in the journal Clinical Breast Cancer, investigators report that those who used a brain-training program for 12 weeks were more cognitively flexible, more verbally fluent, and faster-thinking than survivors who did not train. […]
“This is a well-done study—they had not just one transfer test but several,” says Hambrick, who notes that many studies of cognitive training depend on a single test to measure results. “But an issue is the lack of activity within the control group.” Better would be to have the control group do another demanding cognitive task in lieu of Lumosity training—something analogous to a placebo, he says: “The issue is that maybe the improvement in the group that did the cognitive training doesn’t reflect enhancement of basic cognitive processes per se, but could be a motivational phenomenon.”
A high intake of fructose impairs the cognitive abilities of rats by interfering with insulin signaling, but omega-3 fatty acids (n-3) reduces those negative effects effects according to a study from the Department of Integrative Biology and Physiology UCLA published in Journal of Physiology.
Although headlines today, including my own, emphasize the study’s findings regarding the impairing effects of high levels of fructose, the study also highlights the importance of n-3 acids, specifically DHA, to cognitive function. The authors of the study conclude: “In terms of public health, these results support the encouraging possibility that healthy diets can attenuate the action of unhealthy diets such that the right combination of foods is crucial for a healthy brain.”
The study, conducted by Rahul Agrawal1 and Fernando Gomez-Pinilla, consisted of four groups of six rats:
one group ate an n-3 deficient diet with a fructose solution
one group ate an n-3 deficient diet without a fructose solution
one group ate an n-3 sufficient diet with a fructose solution
one group ate an n-3 sufficient diet without a fructose solution
Each group was tested on a Barnes maze, a standard measure of spatial learning and memory in rodents. Prior to beginning their special diets all of the rats had been trained in the maze for a five days were found to be of equal cognitive condition.
The study found that an n-3 deficient diet hampered the rats’ performance on the maze, and that adding high fructose intake to an n-3 deficient diet made things substantially worse. The rats with an n-3 sufficient diet but a high level of fructose did significantly better than those with a n-3 deficient diet and a high level of fructose, but still did worse than those with a deficient n-3 level but no fructose. Here’s an illustration of the latency in completing the maze (lower is better):
The study notes: “Although there was a preference towards fructose drinking in comparison to the food intake, no differences were observed in body weight and total caloric intake, thus suggesting that obesity is not a major contributor to altered memory functions in this model.”
This is a new study and has yet to be replicated, and so far its implications for human diets is unclear. “We’re not talking about naturally occurring fructose in fruits, which also contain important antioxidants,” Gomez-Pinilla said in a pres release. “We’re concerned about high-fructose corn syrup that is added to manufactured food products as a sweetener and preservative.”
Although studies have found positive benefits in taking DHA supplements (see Wikipedia for an overview), previous study by Nutritional Sciences Division at King’s College London on the DHA levels in vegans and vegetarians concluded that although those who don’t eat meat have significantly lower levels of DHA “There is no evidence of adverse effects on health or cognitive function with lower DHA intake in vegetarians.” However, there are now a number of algae based vegan DHA supplements.
Dan Hurley wrote a lengthy New York Times piece covering the origins of the n-back training exercise, which purportedly improves fluid intelligence in those who practice it daily:
The study, by a Swedish neuroscientist named Torkel Klingberg, involved just 14 children, all with A.D.H.D. Half participated in computerized tasks designed to strengthen their working memory, while the other half played less challenging computer games. After just five weeks, Klingberg found that those who played the working-memory games fidgeted less and moved about less. More remarkable, they also scored higher on one of the single best measures of fluid intelligence, the Raven’s Progressive Matrices. Improvement in working memory, in other words, transferred to improvement on a task the children weren’t training for. […]
When Klingberg’s study came out, both Jaeggi and Buschkuehl were doctoral candidates in cognitive psychology at the University of Bern, Switzerland. Since his high-school days as a Swiss national-champion rower, Buschkuehl had been interested in the degree to which skills — physical and mental — could be trained. Intrigued by Klingberg’s suggestion that training working memory could improve fluid intelligence, he showed the paper to Jaeggi, who was studying working memory with a test known as the N-back. “At that time there was pretty much no evidence whatsoever that you can train on one particular task and get transfer to another task that was totally different,” Jaeggi says. That is, while most skills improve with practice, the improvement is generally domain-specific: you don’t get better at Sudoku by doing crosswords. And fluid intelligence was not just another skill; it was the ultimate cognitive ability underlying all mental skills, and supposedly immune from the usual benefits of practice. To find that training on a working-memory task could result in an increase in fluid intelligence would be cognitive psychology’s equivalent of discovering particles traveling faster than light.
Most of the cognitive training games of 2011 resemble the simple games you can play online for free or apps designed for smartphones. However, in ten years, we can expect many of the big developers, following Nintendo’s lead, to introduce critical gaming elements. Envision games featuring improved graphics, compelling gameplay, and engaging storylines that compel players to train their brains often and in a variety of ways. Imagine a role-playing game (RPG) in which your character’s level and progress are determined in part by your performance on a variety of cognitive training tasks, and the selection of tasks are dependent on the class chosen by the player, and thus tailored made for each individual user. Much in the same way that RPG style games will foster unique training experiences, cognitive training games in general will become tailored to individual interests, focusing on training specific cognitive mechanisms, rather than providing a general training regimen that the user may not be looking for. […]
Non-Conscious Defenses- Starting all the way back in the 1950’s, firms have sought to understand human psychology in order to capitalize on our biases and tendencies through influencing us on the sub-conscious level. In the past couple decades however, research into non-conscious processing and subliminal priming have begun to unravel the fascinating ways that people develop preferences for products and how they estimate value. Companies have been following this research closely and already implement their findings into many forms of media: magazines, movies and even presidential election commercials (5). Expect that training games will begin to offer cognitive defenses against advertising seeking to influence us on the sub conscious level.
#5.You’re Probably a Night Owl — And That’s a Bad Thing
#4.You’re Less Likely to Pass On Your Genes
#3. You’re More Likely to Lie
#2. You’re More Likely to Believe Bullshit
#1. You’re More Likely to Be Self-Destructive
Jonides, who is the Daniel J. Weintraub Collegiate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, collaborated with colleagues at U-M, the University of Bern and the University of Tapei on a series of studies with more than 200 young adults and children, demonstrating the effects of various kinds of n-back mental training exercises. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation and by the Office of Naval Research.
According to Jonides, the n-back task taps into a crucial brain function known as working memory—the ability to maintain information in an active, easily retrieved state, especially under conditions of distraction or interference. Working memory goes beyond mere storage to include processing information.
Soak Your Head offers a free Web-based n-back training program, but it requires Microsoft Silverlight. You can find a list of other applications here.
Another way to boost your mental capabilities? Play first person shooters. This NPR story provides an overview of the research. You can also find a research paper that looks at multiple studies here (PDF).
The government’s official experts on illegal drugs have been asked to look at whether intelligence-enhancing drugs, such as those used by students to boost performance in exams, should be banned.
Medical experts believe that a range of psychoactive drugs that includes those used to tackle the symptoms of Alzheimer’s and attention-deficit disorder in children, could fuel an already over-competitive society when used by the healthy.
Amid fears that the increase in online pharmacies means that such drugs are much more readily available, the Home Office has asked the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs to see how this “rapidly evolving field” should be regulated. Just before she stepped down from office, the previous home secretary, Jacqui Smith, asked the advisory council to assess the harm – including that of possible psychological dependence or addiction – caused by this group of drugs when used by healthy adults.