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'Use it or lose it': The importance of 'brain exercise'

April 1, 2010
by Shlomo Breznitz, PhD
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Even an “older” brain can stay healthy doing mental “reps”

Recent discoveries about the health of active brains have many implications for people as they age. We now know that the mind, like the body's muscles, takes effort to maintain fitness. Contrary to common wisdom, new brain cells are created throughout an individual's entire life span. Physical exercise, good nutrition, and cognitive effort can increase blood flow to the brain, which helps to enhance cognitive reserves.

One of the challenges of keeping mentally fit is that the brain is a very efficient organ. It employs well-used nerve pathways that allow it to perform activities in “automatic mode” whenever possible. If there are several ways to solve a problem, an individual's brain will pick the easiest way instead of exploring a new approach that may be more difficult. Although this is aimed at making life easier, this process is bad news for the brain. Performing a routine act means that very little thought is required for these activities. As people age, more and more thought processes fall into the category of routine and less effort is required for thought in everyday lives.

Keeping brain cells active

Good nutrition and physical exercise are critical for physical and cognitive health. Research now shows that mental effort can further stimulate new brain cell growth. Active brain cells stimulate a better blood supply so cells get more oxygen and nutrients. This also leads to more new branches to other brain cells, making an active neuron the hub of an interconnected network of cells. With increased connections, cells get more stimulation and generate more activity.

Heightened brain cell activity also enhances production of Nerve Growth Factor, which further helps maintain cell health. Each active brain cell can sprout up to 30,000 branches, making it a well-connected member of a huge network of cells. Mental effort stimulates generation of new brain cells that migrate to the area where cells are needed, and “learn” from the surrounding cells to perform the functions necessary. This is especially important for those who are recovering from brain injury or stroke.

To improve cognitive fitness, the goal is to turn inactive brain cells into healthier active brain cells. Inactive brain cells are less stimulated and receive less oxygen and nutrients and do not sprout new branches. These cells are prime targets for cell death since they sit idle with no major impact on brain function.

What is cognitive training?

Cognitive training is organized, ongoing activity that requires some effort and challenging new thought. The goal is to seek out novel events that require attentive thought, rather than routine thought. New experiences and thoughts generate brain cell activity and keep our brains growing, developing, and fit rather than lapsing into thoughtless routine and brain cell inactivity.

Why is specific cognitive training necessary?

Are specific brain-training exercises really necessary? Doesn't life present enough continuous challenges to ensure brain fitness? After all, there are situations in every waking hour that require the brain to process constant stimuli and plan many activities, some of them quite complex, to navigate through daily life. At one time, this was the same argument against the need for physical exercise. Health professionals eventually realized that daily activities in ordinary life are not enough to maintain physical fitness and that the best way to maintain a healthy body was through dedicated workouts. The same is true for mental fitness.

Just as physical fitness requires deliberate exercise, the best way to maintain cognitive health is through deliberate brain exercises. The main reason for this rests on the fact that the brain is basically lazy. When faced with a problem, it will search for similar experiences from the past and evoke a similar solution when possible. This mode does not require attention and is very fast since searching the “mental database” is easy and automatic. However, if the brain needs to analyze the situation and possible alternative actions and consequences, this process takes time and mental effort.

Although Sudoku and crossword puzzles are good ways to improve some cognitive functions, just like anything else that is done frequently, the brain adopts routines and strategies for solving these problems after a while.

Effective training

To be successful, cognitive training should be designed for each individual's needs. It's important to set goals that are personalized and achievable, and provide ongoing feedback and motivation. Similar to physical fitness programs, training programs that are too difficult will be abandoned. Yet if they are too easy, the brain won't make gains and may become bored with the activities. Cognitive training, like physical exercise, works best when it is gradual, consistently ongoing, and adapted as performance improves. Dedicated programs should start with an individual assessment, and, ideally, include three 20-minute sessions per week.

The best brain fitness activities are those that are new and challenging. Reading a new book, visiting new places, trying new foods, learning to play a musical instrument, or best, learning a new language, are all activities that can improve brain fitness. In addition, high-quality formal cognitive training exercises that cover the main cognitive functions, based on individual needs and performance, can maximize time spent for cognitive improvement.

Other ways to promote healthy cognitive habits:

  • Encourage program activities such as new sports, dance lessons, or games

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