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A Smarter Idea: Combining Mental & Physical Exercise


Walking for one hour a few times a week can increase the size of brain regions responsible for attention and memory. There’s also a strong correlation between high lifetime amounts of physical activity and better cognitive skills later in life.

Giving New Brain Cells Something to Do

It’s generally accepted that a limited number of new brain cells can be produced in adult mammal brains. A study of exercise in animals found that after 2 weeks of daily, voluntary aerobic exercise there was a 50% increase in new neurons generated in the hippocampus (memory center of the brain), and even a single day of exercise increased the number of new brain cells produced.

There’s a catch, however. Regardless of how many new neurons are created from aerobic exercise, many will die within 1 to 2 weeks if they aren’t integrated into the brain’s network. A way to rescue and preserve these new cells is through combining physical exercise with intensive cognitive training.


Work Your Brain and Body At The Same Time

Research recently conducted in the UCLA Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences has pushed the envelope on how to increase cognitive performance through combining physical and mental exercises.

Dr. Sarah McEwen was the lead investigator on a study in older adults who reported having memory problems. Research participants were randomized to either 4 weeks of supervised strategy-based memory training done simultaneously while stationary cycling (the SIM group), or memory training only *after* the stationary cycling exercise was completed (the SEQ group).

The SIM group, but not the SEQ group, had a significant improvement on composite memory following the intervention and transfer to non-trained reasoning abilities and complex attention.

In other words, the people who underwent memory training *while pedaling on a bike* had better brain function measures than the group that didn’t do any cognitive exercises while on the bike.

Exercise and Cognitive Performance

The reasons for this extra kick in cognitive performance from the group that trained their brain and body at the same time:

  • Aerobic exercise releases a cascade of neurochemicals (including Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor – BDNF) that support brain health and provides greater amounts of oxygen to the brain getting the brain in an optimal state for learning,
  • Focused cognitive training, such as practicing real-life memory strategies, will be encoded better in the brain and have a broader reach to impact daily life functioning,
  • Parallel-tasking of two easy or moderately difficulty tasks actually benefits performance on those two tasks due to increased engagement and focus.

Continued new skill acquisition in life is the key to supporting a healthy brain, so switch up your physical and mental training program every 3 months.

Ideas? Combine your aerobic activity (5 minute exercise intervals on a treadmill) with learning a new motor skill, such as an activity that engages complex and coordinated movements (such as table tennis, juggling, playing the piano).

New gym idea: add a piano on the workout floor!

Contributing Author: Dr. Sarah McEwen is a Cognitive Psychologist at UCLA and UCSD, Associate Editor at NeuroReport and the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and a leading expert in the field of exercise and brain plasticity. She is an NSCA-certified personal trainer and the Owner of Genius Gyms, a fitness and technology company in San Diego, CA offering personal and group training of simultaneously training of the body and brain to improve both mental and physical performance for all ages.

Are Prevagen’s Memory Claims False?


The maker of Prevagen, a memory supplement, continues to be embroiled in legal controversy surrounding marketing claims that Prevegan can improve memory in older adults.

Background

The Federal Trade Commission and New York State Attorney General filed a complaint in 2017 against the maker of Prevagen, alleging false advertising that Prevagen improved memory and is “clinically shown” to work.

“The marketers of Prevagen preyed on the fears of older consumers experiencing age-related memory loss,” said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “But one critical thing these marketers forgot is that their claims need to be backed up by real scientific evidence.”

However, the complaint was dismissed in US District Court later in 2017.

2018 Update

The FTC and New York AG’s office are taking a second run at the complaint against Prevegen’s maker with an appeal to re-instate the case.

Also, the AARP Foundation and Truth in Advertising (TINA.org) non-profit have filed a brief in support of re-instating the case against Prevagen’s maker. The brief includes this interesting view:

“In 2011, four years after launching Prevagen, Wisconsin-based Quincy Bioscience embarked on a study to prove that the active ingredient in the supplement — apoaequorin — improves memory. It did not yield the results Quincy was hoping for. In fact, the Madison Memory Study failed to show a statistically significant improvement in the treatment group over the placebo group — scientist speak for Prevagen wasn’t any better than a placebo at improving memory. But rather than pack it in and start afresh with a new study, like a high school biology student whose hypothesis has been proven wrong but who still needs an A to pass the class, Quincy concocted new, less reliable ways to look at the completed study.”

In other words, the legal brief claims that Quincy fiddled with the Prevagen study data to get the results they wanted, instead of what the actual results were telling them (no improvement for people taking Prevagen).

The Problem With Memory Supplements

The lack of reliable clinical trials for memory supplements isn’t confined to Prevagen alone. There are a ridiculous number of memory and “brain pill” supplements available on Amazon, and none of them have any peer-reviewed studies to back up the hopeful marketing claims.

This also feeds into a business issue that isn’t easily dismissed – Amazon and retail outlets like Walgreens, Walmart, and Target receive substantial revenue (and profit) from selling these supplements. They are very reluctant to pull items off websites and retail shelves that keep their business turning.

Bottom Line: Caveat Emptor – Buyer Beware. Memory supplements aren’t backed by independent research.

Consider instead: regular physical exercise, a healthy diet, and good sleep quality. The best “supplements” for your brain.

Curious to learn more? Take the Healthy Brain Test and download your personalized brain health guide.

How to Stop Caregiver Burnout

The demands of caregiving for a loved one with Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia can be overwhelming. If this stress is left untreated, it can take a toll on your health, relationships, and state of mind — eventually leading to burnout.

Common signs and symptoms of caregiver stress include anxiety, depression, irritability, and trouble concentrating. Feeling tired and run down, difficulty sleeping, and overreacting to minor situations are other common symptoms.

Remember, you won’t be able to care for someone if you don’t take care of yourself. Some helpful tips to consider:

Don’t Be Afraid To Ask For Help

Friends and family often want to help but do not necessarily know how you are feeling or what you need. Spread the responsibility as much as possible. Assign specific tasks to those willing to help. Accept help when offered and let others feel good about supporting you.

Tip: Online calendars (Google Calendar and iCalendar) are good ways to share important tasks and appointments.

Give Yourself Respite Breaks

As a busy caregiver, leisure time may seem like an impossible luxury but it is important to allow yourself permission to rest and do things that you enjoy on a daily basis. Ask a friend or family member to take over for a bit so that you can get out of the house, socialize, take in a movie or participate in anything that boosts your spirits.

Tip: Local county governments will typically have an aging & elder care website with a list of resources.

Take Care of Your Own Health

Stay on top of your own doctor’s appointments in addition to those of your loved one. Be sure to exercise, meditate and eat well. Exercise and meditation are very powerful stress relievers. Nourishing your body with healthy food gives you energy and focus. Be sure to get enough sleep so that your mood, productivity and ability to handle stress do not suffer.

Tip: 30 minutes of daily physical activity (fast walking, jogging) reduces stress hormone levels in the body.

Join A Support Group

A caregiver support group connects people facing similar challenges and reduces your sense of isolation. Such groups are an effective way to form new friendships, share your feelings and learn tips for improving your situation.

MyBrainTest sponsors a free online support group for caregivers and people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia.

Local Alzheimer’s Association chapters also will have a list of support groups near you.

Bottom Line: Take action to support your own needs as a caregiver!

List of Cognitive Function & Memory Tests

A list of cognitive assessment & function tests in one place:

1. Brain Speed and Performance Test. Measures cognitive processing speed and attention.

2. Healthy Brain Test. Curious About Your Brain? Take the Healthy Brain Test and learn about your risk factors for Alzheimer’s and dementia, and how diet choices, sleep quality, concussion history, and physical exercise can affect your brain health.

3. Short Term Memory Test. Remember the pictures that repeat during the test. Good performance is 90% accuracy on repeated images.

4. Memory Loss Quiz & Checklist. Concerned about the memory health of someone close to you? Use the Memory Loss Checklist and receive a free score.

5. Digit Span Test. A popular working memory test that is used in many cognitive and neuroscience research labs. How many numbers can you remember, both forward and backward?

6. Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA) paper test. This is the same cognitive test administered to Donald Trump by the White House physician as part of the president’s annual physical exam. Download the MoCA Cognitive Test. Download test scoring instructions.

New Series on Fentanyl Use and Production


With the continued rise of opioid related overdose deaths in the United States and other countries, we have started a new educational series on the dangers of illicit fentanyl use.

Fentanyl is a very potent, synthetic type of morphine. Much of the increase in opioid overdose deaths since 2014 can be directly attributed to expanding illegal fentanyl production.

We hope readers find this education series informative and useful:

1. How Fentanyl Affects the Brain

2. Fentanyl Overdose Facts

3. Illegal Fentanyl Production Overview

Suggestions on how to improve this educational service are welcome.

The Motivation Switch in Your Brain

The part of your brain that is crucial for self-motivation also serves as a center for understanding the preferences and motivations of other people.

Getting yourself motivated towards achieving a goal, and understanding what other people might want in order to help you achieve your goals often go hand-in-hand.

Recent research by a neuroscience team at Zhejiang University in China points to a specific group of neurons known as the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, or dmPFC, as instrumental to this process:

The dmPFC is integral to the Theory of Mind, defined as the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires, intentions, and perspectives that are different from one’s own.

Knowing What Others Want

Humans are highly social animals; the ability to estimate others’ preferences in an accurate and reliable manner is typically essential for successful social adaptation and survival.

Since the mental states of others are often much less predictable than those of one’s self, reading the mind of others is an inherently uncertain process. The dmPFC plays a central role in constantly updating a mental “snaphot” of other people, on the basis of incoming information obtained through observation – in other words, using interactions and behavior cues to read someone’s mind with greater accuracy.

In many cases, perceiving the intentions of others can be directly tied to the ability to focus on and clarify your own intentions – the dual role of the dmPFC.

Conditioning Your Brain to Win

In the Zhejiang University study, researchers used optogenetics to directly stimulate the dmPFC in male rats. Optogenetics is the combination of genetics and direct light to control the activity of brain cells.

In the experiment, lower ranking male rats were given a “boost” to their dmPFC through an optogenetic light pulse, making them dominant over the alpha male. Take a look at this video:

This dmPFC power boost lasted long after the experiment, leading to more dominant behavior by previously lower ranking rats. In other words, the winning streak continued.

So how can we replicate this effect in daily life? A large goal is made up of many smaller goals. Focus on the seemingly small goals first, and establish a positive track record.

Free example: Try this working memory test, which asks you to repeat a series of numbers. The Span is set to 8, which can be difficult to achieve at first. Lower the Span to 5 or 6, then work your way up to 10 digits.