January 06, 2011

Boosting Your Brain: Sorting out the Facts from the Myths

Boosting Your Brain: Sorting out the Facts from the Myths 

Everyone wants to be smarter. With the rise of Alzheimer's disease and increased competition for college admissions and scholarships both young and old are interested in finding ways to improve their brain performance, i.e. processing speed, memory/ recall and reasoning / problem solving. Thus with such a large demand, the media is filled with stories about this or that product or technique which "really " works. Today we are going to discuss the findings of the 2010. NIH study which reviewed all the claims. Although most products didn't work, there are some good tips to help us think better. Let's take a look.

(In light of the revelation that the "study" which said that childhood vaccinations caused autism was a hoax, it is especially important to check the facts of medical claims or any other for that matter, carefully. )

The NIH report is complicated and technical but its conclusions are very practical and helpful. The report divided findings into three groups:

1) no evidence of efficacy

2) insufficient evidence and

3) promising correlations. The claims were then divided into two types: those which maximized potential and those which increased capacity. Since there were so many items examined we will only briefly mention the claims which did not help or had need for more testing and focus on the most promisingfindings.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

The bottom line was that most claims you have heard about do not enough evidence to support them. Some had some validity but needed further study and the third category had significant positive correlations. The information from the substantiated research was mostly stuff we already knew but there were a few surprises. For areas that were previously known, studies had elucidated the neuro-chemistry behind the recommendations.

Specifically, stress was seen to be a major contributing factor to decreased mental acuity. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is found to denigrate the Mylar sheathing of the neurons making thinking difficult.

On the other hand, positive and confident outlooks are associated with dopamine production and greater mental performance. The lack physical exercise, social isolation and negative outlooks were also associated with poor mental functioning.

The Findings:

Not helpful

vitamins, beta carotene, folic acid, anti-oxidants, Mediterranean diet statins, aspirin, "genius pills"

Some Help with short term memory ... but have drawbacks

nicotine, stimulants, provigil ( for chemo patients)

The Very Promising

Maximizers  Specifically, stress was seen to be a major contributing factor to decreased mental acuity. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is found to denigrate the Mylar sheathing of the neurons making thinking difficult.

On the other hand, positive and confident outlooks are associated with dopamine and greater mental performance. The lack physical exercise, social isolation and negative outlooks were also associated with poor mental functioning.

Everyone knows that when we're upset or stressed our we don't think so well. Likewise when we feel confident and have a positive attitude we do better. Now we know the underlying neuro-chemistry of why that is so.

Increasers Activities

The most exciting data reveals that there are actually things we can do to improve our intelligence:

1. Physical exercise (aerobic) - builds new neural-pathways and lowers stress.

2. Meditation -- improves concentration and relieves stress.

3. Some video games -- improve mental flexibility

Conclusion:

No pill or gimmick is going to make you smarter. No supplement is going to make you a genius. However, research has learned key factors which unnecessarily reduce our ability to think. In other words, we don't need to be smarter, we just need to reduce stress, worry, negativity, social isolation and physical inactivity.

Poor cognitive performance is, as psychotherapists have none for a long time, more a result of stress, anxiety or depression rather than a lack of intelligence. Reducing stress and anxiety, improving self esteem and confidence and are the best ways to get smarter.

Research has also shows us what helps us to actually increase our mental potential. Things like regular aerobic exercise, meditation and even some videos games will also help us to maintain our mental abilities through the years.

The Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC prepared these remarks for Bridge Street 1 6 2011.

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