cognition

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Why To Exercise Today: Avoid Brain Shrinkage As You Age

MilitaryHealth/flickr

MilitaryHealth/flickr

Middle-age adults take note: the exercise you shirk today may lead to shrunken brain tissue in a couple of decades.

This, according to research presented at the American Heart Association Epidemiology/Lifestyle meeting in Baltimore this week.

After reviewing exercise data taken from more than 1,200 adults who were around 40 years old — a subset of the Framingham Heart Study — researchers found that twenty years later when these same individuals underwent MRI scans, those with “lower fitness levels in midlife also had lower brain tissue levels in later life,” said Nicole L. Spartano, Ph.D., lead author and a postdoctoral fellow at the Boston University School of Medicine.

Though the findings are preliminary, Spartano says it looks like there’s a link between lower fitness levels and faster brain aging. Since the MRI’s in this study were done on people about 58 years old, the researchers didn’t expect to see high rates of dementia, but they did detect “the beginning of shrinkage,” Spartano said. “We look at the brain MRI as an early warning sign for deterioration. This may give us some idea of decreased cognition a decade or so later.”

Specifically, the researchers evaluated fitness based on how the heart changes in the early stages of exercise. Continue reading

After A Death, Should We Get A Dog? Brain Study Signals ‘Yes’

(Greg Westfall/Flickr)

(Greg Westfall/Flickr)

Let’s be clear: I need a dog like a hole in the head.

I’m a recently widowed working mother with a small house, no trust fund and two extremely active young daughters: if it’s Thursday, it must be rock-climbing, piano and Taekwondo before track practice across town. You get the picture.

Still, lately I’ve been thinking the unthinkable: a Maltipoo, Goldendoodle or some other ridiculously named, hypoallergenic, low-maintenance (does that exist?), cute-as hell puppy for my daughters — and for me — to love.

I know full well this is a risky prospect. “There is no rational reason to get a dog,” says my Basset Hound-owner friend. “They are work, expense and add to the list of beings in your home who have needs to be attended to. It is sort of like deciding to have a kid — no rational reason to do that either but big pay off on love, general hilarity and a constant reminder of the joy in everyday small things.” Or, as another friend put it: “What have dogs done for me? They make me more human.”

“What have dogs done for me? They make me more human.”

– A dog-loving friend

It’s that truly profound, but tricky to pinpoint, human-pet bond that drives Lori Palley’s research. She’s assistant director of veterinary services at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Comparative Medicine and has recently become fascinated by why people’s relationships with their dogs can be so very significant.

Her latest research, published in the medical journal PLOS ONE, involved scanning the brains of mothers while they were looking at images of their own children and their dogs. Surprise: similar areas of the brain were activated — regions involved in emotion and reward — whether it was the kids or dogs on view.

It was a small study using fMRI: only 14 mothers (dog owners) who had at least one young child. And in case you jump to some conclusion about moms loving their dogs as much as, or more than, their kids, wait: the research also found that in other areas of the brain involved in attachment and bonding, the mother’s brains were more activated when viewing their children.

In a small study, mothers viewed images of their own children and their dog. Similar areas of the brain involved in emotion and reward were activated. Source: PLOS ONE: "Brain Activation when Mothers View Their Own Child and Dog: An fMRI Study

In a small study, mothers viewed images of their own children and their dog. Similar areas of the brain involved in emotion and reward were activated. (Source: PLOS ONE: “Brain Activation when Mothers View Their Own Child and Dog: An fMRI Study”)

Continue reading

The Grandma Effect: A Little Caregiving Sharpens Brain, A Lot Dulls It

(Douglas/flickr)

(Douglas/flickr)

There’s an old saying in medicine: “The dose makes the poison.”

Personally, I find the adage holds true in many contexts, from nutrition to exercise to parenting: often too much of a good thing turns toxic.

Here’s the latest twist: A new report finds that grandmothers who care for their grandkids once a week experience a boost in mental sharpness. But if that one day of cozy caregiving expands to five or more days a week, it can put grandma on edge, and her brain can grow duller, with more memory and other cognitive problems.

Here’s what the researchers conclude, from the abstract:

The data suggest that the highest cognitive performance is demonstrated by postmenopausal women who spend 1 day/week minding grandchildren; however, minding grandchildren for 5 days or more per week predicts lower working memory performance and processing speed. These results indicate that highly frequent grandparenting predicts lower cognitive performance.

And here’s more info on the study (via news release) published online in the journal Menopause:

Taking care of grandkids one day a week helps keep grandmothers mentally sharp, finds a study from the Women’s Healthy Aging Project study in Australia…That’s good news for women after menopause, when women need to lower their risks of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other cognitive disorders.

On the other hand, taking care of grandchildren five days a week or more had some negative effects on tests of mental sharpness. “We know that older women who are socially engaged have better cognitive function and a lower risk of developing dementia later, but too much of a good thing just might be bad,” said NAMS Executive Director Margery Gass, MD. Continue reading

Study: Head-Blows In Single Sports Season May Impact Brain Health, Test Scores

When it comes to potential head injuries, I’m feeling pretty good about my daughters’ sports choices these days: Taekwondo, track, yoga, African dance.

Of course, injuries — head and otherwise — can occur anytime, anywhere. But I have to say, with the wave of new data emerging about the the scary long-term effects of repeated head blows, I’m pleased that they have, so far, shown no interest in hardcore contact sports like football or ice hockey, where head injuries are more common.

But I probably shouldn’t be feeling so puffed-up on this issue quite yet: even sports not typically associated with repeated head bonks are being reevaluated. (See, also: cheerleading.)

One local grandmother told me how concerned she is about her 11-year-old grandson, a soccer fanatic who dreams of playing professionally, and has already had a concussion and other injuries. “He tells me how much he loves soccer,” the grandmother says. “And when I asked him, ‘What about the injuries?’ he says, ‘Oh, that’s just part of the game.’ This certainly takes some of the joy out of watching him play. I’m very worried about what all this is doing to his brain.”

And a Newton mom, who had steered her son away from football and hockey, now has new worries: her 9-year-old just got a concussion skiing. “I think we’ll continue to let him ski, but we just hope he’ll be smarter, more aware — we tell him ‘It’s your head!’ Maybe we should have him wear a helmet all the time.”

The latest study by researchers at Dartmouth published online in the journal Neurology focused on the most notorious contact sports, but found that even one short season of play may change the brain in ways that negatively impact learning, memory and cognition.

Here’s more from the news release:

New research suggests that even in the absence of a concussion, blows to the head during a single season of football or ice hockey may affect the brain’s white matter and cognition, or memory and thinking abilities. The study is published in the December 11, 2013, online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. White matter is brain tissue that plays an important role in the speed of nerve signals.

“We found differences in the white matter of the brain in these college contact sport athletes compared to non-contact sport varsity athletes,” said study author Thomas W. McAllister, MD, of Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis. “The degree of white matter change in the contact sport athletes was greater in those who performed more poorly than expected on tests of memory and learning, suggesting a possible link in some athletes between how hard/often they are hit, white matter changes, and cognition, or memory and thinking abilities.”

The work was completed while McAllister was with the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth in Hanover, NH.

The study involved 80 concussion-free Division I NCAA Dartmouth College varsity football and ice hockey players who wore helmets that recorded the acceleration-time of the head following impact. They were compared to 79 non-contact sport athletes in activities such as track, crew and Nordic skiing. The players were assessed before and shortly after the season with brain scans and learning and memory tests. Continue reading

Typing And The Meaning Of Words

(Adikos/Flickr)

This is one of those studies that’s either really profound, or, well, really not.

Researchers from London and New York say they’ve discovered a link between typing letters on a computer keyboard and mood.

Specifically, typing words with more letters on the right side of the keyboard apparently makes people happier, a phenomenon the scientists dub the “QWERTY” effect, named after the first six letters on the top left of the most modern-day keyboards. (Why they didn’t choose an acronym with letters on the right side, to make people feel more positive about the study, I have no clue.)

Here’s a news release describing the research, published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review:

Words spelled with more letters on the right of the keyboard are associated with more positive emotions than words spelled with more letters on the left, according to new research by cognitive scientists Kyle Jasmin of University College London and Daniel Casasanto of The New School for Social Research, New York. Their work shows, for the first time, that there is a link between the meaning of words and the way they are typed – a relationship they call the QWERTY* effect. Their study is published online in Springer’s journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

In the past, language was only spoken and therefore, only subject to the constraints on hearing and speaking. Now that language is frequently produced by the fingers – typing and texting – it is filtered through the keyboard i.e. through QWERTY. As people develop new technologies for producing language, these technologies shape the language they are designed to produce. What Jasmin and Casasanto’s work shows is that widespread typing introduces a new mechanism by which changes in the meaning of words can arise. Continue reading

The Marc Hauser Counter-Offensive Begins

Harvard Crimson: Who Will Speak For Marc Hauser?

The Harvard Crimson today offers a defense, of sorts, of Marc Hauser, the Harvard psychology professor accused of scientific misconduct.

The Crimson piece, written by Bert Vaux, a former professor of linguistics at Harvard and Jeffrey Watumull, a graduate student in linguistics at the University of Cambridge and a member of Hauser’s lab, basically trashes the media for telling only one side of the story, and for lacing those stories with “innuendo” and “gossip.”

Vaux and Watumull defend the research methodology Hauser used in experiments he did with monkeys, seeking to determine if they recognized certain sound patterns. And, the writers say Gerry Altmann, the editor of the journal Cognition, who speculated that Hauser fabricated data, spoke out in a manner that was “exceedingly improper.” (Hauser did retract a 2002 paper published in Cognition, and apologized, vaguely, for “mistakes” made.)

The Crimson piece concludes:

In our experience, Marc Hauser is the consummate scientist—the most disinterested, the most rational, the most ethical. We are proud to be his colleagues. However, we are less than proud of those in the cognitive sciences reacting publicly to Hauser’s case with irresponsible impatience (disrespect for due process), unjustified slurs, and half-baked conjectures. All are interested in the truth, but as scientists we ought to consider the case reasonably and measuredly, with objectivity and fairness.