New research (dis!)proves popular brain claims.
We have heard a lot about how the brain is such a marvelous organ, how it directs and coordinates everything we do, that it is essential to keep it active and that it relates to intelligence. In sum: throughout the years we have heard a lot, but how much of it is true?
“Brain training makes you more intelligent.” – WRONG
There are two forms of activity that must be distinguished: working memory capacity and general fluid intelligence. The first one refers to the ability to keep information in mind or easily retrievable, particularly when we are performing various tasks simultaneously. The second implies the ability to do complex reasoning and solve problems. Most brain trainings are only directed at the first one: the working memory capacity. So yes, you can and should use these games or apps to improve your mental capacity of memorizing. But that won’t make you any better at solving math problems.
“Omega-3 is good for everything, including a brain bust.” – WRONG
Epidemiological evidence suggests dietary consumption of omega-3 fatty-acids may play a role in psychiatric disorders prevention and protect against impaired learning ability after brain injury. However, a recent study shows that our brain does not benefit from omega-3 intake as much as these earlier findings suggest. Cognitive decline is not related to how much omega-3 we take in through fish, cookies or nuts.
“Exercise is good to clear your mind” – CORRECT
What is true is that exercise appears to promote brain health and nerve growth, involved in learning and memory. This happens due to a hormone which is produced during endurance exercise, which busts the production of “brain-health” protein in the hippocampus. Even better news is that this effect might also be available in pills, sooner or later.
“I’ll skip a few hours of sleep today and compensate in the weekend. No problem.” – WRONG
Sacrifice of sleep during the workweek has been linked to sleepiness, worse daytime performance, an increase in molecules related to inflammation and impaired blood sugar regulation. Even though most of these effects were normalized after recovery sleep, the ability to pay attention was not reestablished. The long term consequences of sleep deprivation are not determined yet.
“This is just a migraine. I’ll take something and everything will be okay” – WRONG
A study published in Neurology this year shows that migraines might change the brain structure and raise “the risk of brain lesions, white matter abnormalities and altered brain volume”. However, the correlation between more specific brain structure changes and frequency and length of migraines, is yet to be investigated.
Photo: Flickr, AtteHujanen
Harrison TL, Shipstead Z, Hicks KL, Hambrick DZ, Redick TS, & Engle RW (2013). Working Memory Training May Increase Working Memory Capacity but Not Fluid Intelligence. Psychological science PMID: 24091548
E. M. Ammann, J. V. Pottala, W. S. Harris, M. A. Espeland, R. Wallace, N. L. Denburg, R. M. Carnahan, J. G. Robinson. Omega-3 fatty acids and domain-specific cognitive aging: Secondary analyses of data from WHISCA. Neurology, 2013; DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0b013e3182a9584c
Christiane D. Wrann, James P. White, John Salogiannnis, Dina Laznik-Bogoslavski, Jun Wu, Di Ma, Jiandie D. Lin, Michael E. Greenberg, Bruce M. Spiegelman. Exercise Induces Hippocampal BDNF through a PGC-1α/FNDC5 Pathway. Cell Metabolism, 2013; DOI: 10.1016/j.cmet.2013.09.008
S. Pejovic, M. Basta, A. N. Vgontzas, I. Kritikou, M. L. Shaffer, M. Tsaoussoglou, D. Stiffler, Z. Stefanakis, E. O. Bixler, G. P. Chrousos. Effects of recovery sleep after one work week of mild sleep restriction on interleukin-6 and cortisol secretion and daytime sleepiness and performance. AJP: Endocrinology and Metabolism, 2013; 305 (7): E890 DOI: 10.1152/ajpendo.00301.2013
Asma Bashir, Richard B. Lipton, Sait Ashina and Messoud Ashina. Migraine and structural changes in the brain A systematic review and meta-analysis. Neurology, 2013 DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0b013e3182a6cb32
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