Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Brain That Changes Itself

book review by Laurie Bartell Nov 08

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stores of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, is a compelling collection of tales about the amazing abilities of the brain to rewire, readjust and relearn after having a slice of itself rendered dysfunctional. The first seven chapters captivated me for their personal stories; the final four chapters for the science and philosophy.

Part of what makes Doidge’s writing so accessible is he tells stories, and his stories just happen to incorporate brain science. As a result, his book is easy to digest. The neuroscience behind Doidge’s book involves neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to rewire itself. This means that the brain – our intelligence – is not something fixed in concrete but rather a changing, learning entity. On the face of it, this concept should not sound unusual, for it is what happens to individuals all the time as we go about the learning process, from infancy onwards.

What separates the stories in this book from daily learning is that the brains in question have been damaged in some form or other. Each tale is inspirational in that the individuals are able to overcome substantial, life-altering events, such as severe illness and stroke, in part thanks to the research of visionary scientists and doctors who developed methods and tools to facilitate neuroplasticity.

NeuroplasticityThe catchy phrase behind neuroplasticity is “neurons that fire together wire together”. The idea is that when two events (neurons firing) occur in the brain at the same time, the events (neurons) become associated with one another, and the neuronal connections (wiring) become stronger.

For many years, it was thought that each area of the brain had its own responsibilities; in other words, certain functions were localized or hardwired to certain brain areas. If something is hardwired then it is fixed and not capable of change.
However, while certain areas of the brain do tend to be responsible for specific functions, since the brain is plastic, areas overlap and even can co-opt one another’s functions. Initial maps drawn of our mental system turn out to be not as static as originally thought. If one pathway gets blocked, the brain is very good at finding alternative pathways.

As with any pathway, the more a particular path is used, the more ingrained it becomes, and pathways near one another become associated with each other. If a path is underutilized, over time it will be co-opted by other pathways that are branching out and need more space.
Hence, plasticity can be summed up in a few succinct statements all from chapter three – Redesigning the brain:
- Neurons that fire together wire together.
- Neurons that wire apart fire apart.This is also stated as Neurons out of sync fail to link.
- Use it or lose it.

The ScientistsDoidge includes stories of the neuroscientists, among them Paul Bach-y-Rita, who pioneered the idea of “polysensory”. Polysensory refers to the sensory areas of the brain, which rather than only processing information from just the senses that normally report to those areas, are actually able to process information from any of the senses.

Michael Merzenich, a developer of the cochlear implant and founder of Posit Science, is another of the scientists noted by Doidge. Merzenich says that “You cannot have plasticity in isolation…it’s an absolute impossibility. (and Doidge continues) His experiments have shown that if one brain system changes, those systems connected to it change as well.”

Following on his heels is Edward Taub, who established constraint induced therapy, an alternative therapy for individuals felled by stroke. Taub’s research supported Merzenich’s findings that “when a brain map is not used, the brain can reorganize itself so that another mental function takes over that processing space.”

Alvaro Pascual-Leone’s experiments began with looking at what happens in the minds of those who read Braille, and transitioned to looking at how “our thoughts can change the material structure of our brains.” His goal was “to test whether mental practice and imagination in fact lead to physical changes.” This is, indeed, what happens when athletes use visualization to help prepare for sports trials.

In the last quarter of Doidge’s book, which is equally interesting for the clarification of theories, he discusses the work of Eric Kandel, Sigmund Freud, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Jordan Grafman, and several other scientists who are exploring neuroplasticity.

I see plasticity and metacognition as closely entwined. This combination of knowing that intelligence is not fixed and thus you can change it, and knowing how you learn, is immensely positive and powerful, and has huge implications for students of any age. I translate this to students who struggle with learning issues, and aging adults who fear their brains will fade. I also think it is important for teachers to understand the concept of brain plasticity, as a means for no longer pigeon holing students.

Of course, we take away from an author’s writing what we want or need to learn. As a provider of professional development to faculty, the final lesson I take from Doidge’s book is the power of multifaceted professional development to foster neuroplasticity in adults, and therefore enhance their creativity. I take the message that most of us have the ability to break out of habits and to learn something new, and each time we do this, it strengthens our ability to do it the next time!

Further InformationFor more about Norman Doidge:
interview on The Brain Science Podcast and Blog with Ginger Campbell
For more about some of the neuroscientists mentioned by Doidge:
Edward Taub’s Revolutionary Approach to Stroke Rehabilitation – interview on the Brain Science Podcast
Mixed Feelings – Wired Science’s video article on Paul Bach y Rita’s research
Scientific American Frontiers: Changing Your Mind – The Sight of Touch story of Alvaro Pascual-Leone’s experiments

Training Attention and Emotional Self-Regulation

Michael I. Posner is a prominent scientist in the field of cognitive neuroscience. He is currently an emeritus professor of neuroscience at the University of Oregon (Department of Psychology, Institute of Cognitive and Decision Sciences). In August 2008, the International Union of Psychological Science made him the first recipient of the Dogan Prize "in recognition of a contribution that represents a major advance in psychology by a scholar or team of scholars of high international reputation."

Dr. Posner, many thanks for your time today. I really enjoyed the James Arthur Lecture monograph on Evolution and Development of Self-Regulation that you delivered last year. Could you provide a summary of the research you presented?
I would emphasize that we human beings can regulate our thoughts, emotions, and actions to a greater degree than other primates. For example, we can choose to pass up an immediate reward for a larger, delayed reward.
We can plan ahead, resist distractions, be goal-oriented. These human characteristics appear to depend upon what we often call "self-regulation." What is exciting these days is that progress in neuroimaging and in genetics make it possible to think about self-regulation in terms of specific brain-based networks.

Can you explain what self-regulation is?
All parents have seen this in their kids. Parents can see the remarkable transformation as their children develop the ability to regulate emotions and to persist with goals in the face of distractions. That ability is usually labeled ‘‘self-regulation.’’
The other main area of your research is attention. Can you explain the brain-basis for what we usually call "attention"?
I have been interested in how the attention system develops in infancy and early childhood.
One of our major findings, thanks to neuroimaging, is that there is not one single "attention", but three separate functions of attention with three separate underlying brain networks: alerting, orienting, and executive attention. 1) Alerting: helps us maintain an Alert State.
2) Orienting: focuses our senses on the information we want. For example, you are now listening to my voice.
3) Executive Attention: regulates a variety of networks, such as emotional responses and sensory information. This is critical for most other skills, and clearly correlated with academic performance. It is distributed in frontal lobes and the cingulate gyrus.
The development of executive attention can be easily observed both by questionnaire and cognitive tasks after about age 3–4, when parents can identify the ability of their children to regulate their emotions and control their behavior in accord with social demands.
"Executive attention" sounds similar to executive functions.
Executive functions are goal-oriented. Executive attention is just the ability to manage attention towards those goals, towards planning.
Both are clearly correlated. Executive attention is important for decision-making (how to accomplish an external goal) and with working memory (the temporary storage of information). For example, given that you said earlier that you liked my monograph, I have been thinking of the subheadings and sections there as I provide you my answers, using my working memory capacity.

You said that each of the three functions of attention are supported by separate neural networks.
Neuroimaging allows us to identify sets of distributed areas that operate together. Different techniques allow us to see different things. For example, fMRI lets us see the activation of areas of grey matter. A more recent technique, diffusion tensor, is focused instead on the white matter. It detects connectivity among neurons, it helps us see a map of networks.
How many networks have been identified so far?
So far, a number of networks have been identified. For an illustration, you can see the wonderful interactive Brain Map by the University of Texas, San Antonio (Note:
Let me mention another fascinating area of research. There is a type of neuron, named the Von Economo neuron, which is found only in the anterior cingulate and a related area of the anterior insula, very common in humans, less in other primates, and completely absent in most non-primates. These neurons have long axons, connecting to the anterior cingulate and anterior insula, which we think is part of the reason why we have Executive Attention. Diffusion tensor allows us to identify this white matter, these connections across separate brain structures, in the live brain. From a practical point of view, we can think that neural networks like this are what enable specific human traits such as effortful control.
What is effortful control?
It is a higher-order temperament factor consisting of attention, focus shifting, and inhibitory control - both for children and adults. A common example is how often you may make plans that you do not follow through with. A test often used to measure executive attention is the Stroop Test (you can try it here). Effortful control has been shown to correlate with the scores on executive attention at several ages during childhood, and imaging studies have linked it to brain areas involved in self-regulation.
Good parenting has been shown to build good effortful control, so there are clear implications from this research.

Tell us now about your recent research on attention training
Several training programs have been successful in improving attention in normal adults and in patients suffering from different pathologies. With normal adults, training with video games produced better performance on a range of visual attention tasks. Training has also led to specific improvements in executive attention in patients with specific brain injury. Working-memory training can improve attention with ADHD children.
In one recent study we developed and tested a 5-day training intervention using computerized exercises. We tested the effect of training during the period of major development of executive attention, which takes place between 4 and 7 years of age.
We found that executive attention was trainable, and also a significantly greater improvement in intelligence in the trained group compared to the control children. This finding suggested that training effects had generalized to a measure of cognitive processing that is far removed from the training exercises.
A collaborator of our lab, Dr. Yiyuan Tang, studied the impact of mindfulness meditation with undergrads to improve exec attention, finding significant improvements as well. We hope that training method like this will be further evaluated, along with other methods, both as possible means of improving attention prior to school and for children and adults with specific needs.
Can you explain the potential implications of this emerging research on Education and Health?
It is clear that executive attention and effortful control are critical for success in school. Will they one day be trained in pre-schools? It sounds reasonable to believe so, to make sure all kids are ready to learn. Of course, additional studies are needed to determine exactly how and when attention training can best be accomplished and its lasting importance.
In terms of health, many deficits and clinical problems have a component of serious deficits in executive attention network. For example, when we talk about attention deficits, we can expect that in the future there will be remediation methods, such as working memory training, to help alleviate those deficits.
Let me add that we have found no ceiling for abilities such as attention, including among adults. The more training, even with normal people, the higher the results.

Let me ask your take on that eternal question, the roles of nature and nurture.
There is a growing number of studies that show the importance of interaction between our genes and each of our environments. Epigenetics is going to help us understand that question better, but let me share a very interesting piece of research from my lab where we found an unusual interaction between genetics and parenting.
Good parenting, as measured by different research-based scales, has been shown to build good effortful control which, as we saw earlier, is so important. Now, what we found is that some specific genes reduced, even eliminated, the influence of the quality of parenting. In other words, some children's development really depends on how their parents bring them up, whereas others do not - or do to a much smaller extent.

Too bad that we do not have time now to explore all the potential ethical implications from emerging research like that...let me ask a few final questions. First, given that we have been talking both about formal training programs (computer-based, meditation) and also informal ones (parenting), do we know how formal and informal learning interact? what type can be most effective when, and for whom?
Great question. We don't know at this point. A research institute in Seattle, funded by the National Science Foundation, is trying to address that question. One practical issue they address is the influence of bilingual education on cognition.

How can SharpBrains readers access the computer-based attention training program you talked about earlier?
Researchers and parents can download the program, which is aimed at kids aged 4 to 6. The computerized exercises are available on Click on learning tools and follow attention.Finally, what can we expect from your lab in the next years?
We will hear soon if we obtain the NIH proposal to train children at age 5 and then follow-up over the years, compared to a control group. The program I mentioned earlier showed good short-term results, but we would like to track those kids over time and see what happens. For example, we will examine whether or not an early intervention might translate into a "snowball effect" of higher levels of cognitive and school performance.

- Tang, Y., Ma, Y., Wang, J., Fan, Y., Feng, S., Lu, Q., et al. (2007). Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(43), 17152-17156.
-Rueda, M.R., Rothbart, M.K.. & Saccamanno, L. & Posner, M.I. (2005) Training,maturation and genetic influences on the development of executive attention. Proc.U.S Nat'l Acad of Sciences 102, 14931-14936.
- Rueda, M.R., Posner, M.I., & Rothbart,M.K. (2005) The development of executive attention: contributions to the emergence of self regulation. Developmental Neuropsychology 28, 573-594.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Strength Training Helps Prevent Fat Gain in Overweight, Obese Premenopausal Women

Authors: Laurie Barclay & Désirée Lie,
Release Date: September 24, 2007

Strength training effectively prevents increases of percentage body fat and attenuates increases of intra-abdominal fat in overweight and obese premenopausal women, according to the results of a 2-group, randomized controlled trial reported in the September issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

"American women aged 25 - 44 y gain 0.5 - 1 kg yearly, most of which is fat," write Kathryn H. Schmitz, from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia, and colleagues from the Strong, Healthy, and Empowered study. "Because few midlife women participate in strength training, this mode of activity may be a novel intervention for preventing age-associated fat increases in this population."

An ethnically diverse sample of 164 overweight and obese women was randomized to twice-weekly strength training for 2 years (treatment group) or to a standard care (comparison) group that received brochures recommending aerobic exercise. Age range was 25 to 44 years; body mass index (BMI) was 25 to 35 kg/m2. Computed tomography scan to measure intra-abdominal fat and dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry to measure body fat and fat-free mass were performed at baseline, 1 year, and 2 years.

Changes in percentage body fat during the 2-year study were –3.68% ± 0.99% for the treatment group vs –0.14% ± 1.04% for the control group (P = .01). Changes in intra-abdominal fat were 7.05% ± 5.07% for the treatment group vs 21.36% ± 5.34% for the control group (P = .05).

"This study suggests that strength training is an efficacious intervention for preventing percentage body fat increases and attenuating intraabdominal fat increases in overweight and obese premenopausal women," the study authors write. "This is relevant to public health efforts for obesity prevention because most weight gain can be assumed to be fat, including abdominal fat."

Limitations of the study include greater loss to follow-up in the standard care group and lack of objective monitoring of dietary changes.

"Because these women are already overweight or obese, weight-loss efforts would be desirable," the study authors conclude. "That said, obesity prevention interventions such as twice-weekly strength training are vital to our efforts to slow the increase in population prevalence of obesity and weight gain among overweight and obese women. These findings are particularly relevant to an aging population and the avoidance of the development of sarcopenic obesity in the elderly."

Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;86:566-572.

Top 5 Motivation Tips for Those Who Hate to Exercise

Article Source:

You know those people that get up before dawn to exercise and the ones that work out for hours at the gym like its their part-time job? They seem to live for exercise! Maybe you are not one of them. Even those who hate to work out may come to learn to enjoy the benefits of exercise with these 5 easy exercise tips.

1) Set small goals. You are setting yourself up for failure if you think you are going to lose 30 lbs. next month or if you sign up for a marathon when you can't walk a mile. Take 'baby steps' for success. Make your goals more realistic, like losing 2 lbs., or walking 20 min. 3 times a week. When you see you have achieved those smaller goals you'll feel better about what you are doing.

2) Use others successes to motivate you.If you see a friend lose weight you might feel a bit envious. You might even think that losing weight is just easier for them. Instead of feeling discouraged, make your friend's success a motivation for you. "If she can do it, so can I!" It makes it seem more cheer your friend on !

3) Say Good-bye to negative self-talk.It's really easy to get down on yourself, especially at the beginning of an exercise program. You know the words: "How did I get so fat? I can never look as good as I used to." So, while working out concentrate on what your body can do. Avoid negative thoughts and say things like, " I am getting stronger every day." Studies show that your body believes what the mind keeps telling it.

4) Finish with a 'Bang'...Studies show that if you finish your workout doing things you like that are relaxing and pleasurable, you will have the tendency to come back. If you finish your work out with a series of grueling exercises that cause you pain, that is what you'll remember and you'll avoid coming back. So, finish that workout with a relaxing stretch, maybe to some fun music, and your mind will remember that good feeling. You want to keep up the exercise routine for the best health benefits so do what you can to make that happen.

5) Treat yourself.This doesn't mean to treat yourself with a double-dip ice cream cone. Set your small goals for the 3 mornings a week of 30 min. exercise = a hot bubble bath or a massage. Pick something you enjoy and set your sites to having it when you achieve your goals. Your body will thank you by feeling more energetic and looking better!

Debbie Mumm is an Indoor Air Specialist in northern IL. She has been working in this industry since 1996.