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Collision Conference Recap: Robotics, AI, and VR for Health Care

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The Collision conference, held last week in New Orleans, is a unique mashup of technology talks that offer wide ranging views on how emerging technologies are shaking up everything from the music and auto industries to health care, clean energy, and more.

The conference also offered a showcase for promising startups, with what seems like an unlimited source of ideas – “There’s an app for that” appeared to be true when walking the conference floor.

Doctor Robot Will Heal You Now

A theme that emerged from health tech startups and conference talks is the idea that health care will be moving into your home, through the use of app-driven devices, robotics, and “expert systems”, better known as AI.

In this new health care world, many medical devices could become as common as household appliances (think blood pressure, heart rate, and sleep monitors), and medical expert apps on your phone that will alert your doctor when a health problem is detected, long before the need for an urgent care or ER visit.

The physician of the future may evolve into more of a medical Sherpa, guiding you along the best path to health and wellness, based on real-time health data from your medical app & devices.

A few health care devices & apps from the conference: Softbank Robotics Pepper, currently designed as a hospitality greeter, could easily evolve into a more serious home health assistant with the right AI software – learning how to help & respond to a person’s individual (and idiosyncratic) needs.

DeepFit takes a novel approach to health & fitness training, with a major focus on emotional and cognitive health, rather than “standard” data like calories consumed and heart rate.

Neurotrainer, a virtual reality (VR) app for cognitive training and rehabilitation. VR systems show great promise as a non-drug approach to ADHD, brain injury rehabilitation, and a host of other brain conditions.

Curious about Your Brain? Take the Healthy Brain Test, and learn how diet choices, exercise, and emotional health can affect your overall brain health.

Sleep Apnea and Memory Loss

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Sleep is a vital biological function for humans – we spend about 30% of our lives sleeping.

Good sleep is important for memory consolidation (processing newly learned information). It’s also important for clearing out metabolic debris from the brain each day — including amyloid beta protein, one of the markers of Alzheimer’s disease.

Sleep apnea and other sleep disordered breathing problems can cause early cognitive impairment, especially for adults over the age of 50.

Disordered breathing can cause one or more pauses in breathing or shallow breaths while you sleep. These breathing pauses can last from a few seconds to a few minutes. Breathing pauses may occur 30 times or more an hour. Typically, normal breathing then starts again, sometimes with a loud snort or choking sound.

One of the direct results of sleep apnea is hypoxia – a lack of oxygen supply to surrounding tissues, including the heart and brain. Sleep apnea related hypoxia can bring accelerate the risk of cognitive impairment by more than a decade, according to ongoing research published in the journal Neurology.


Tips to Stop Sleep Apnea

Take the extra weight off. Being significantly overweight or obese is a major risk factor for sleep apnea, hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes – all bad news for brain health and heart health. Follow the MIND diet to achieve a healthier brain and heart.

Investigate Orofacial Myofunctional Therapy (OMT). OMT is a structured method to train the muscles in your neck and throat for better breathing at night when sleeping (and also during the day). See the Academy of Orofacial Myofunctional Therapy website for more information.

Consider CPAP if Tips 1&2 don’t solve your sleep apnea. While CPAP can be effective, there are serious drawbacks to the device, such as low compliance rates among users, along with risks for nosebleeds, stomach discomfort, and claustrophobia.

Curious about your brain? Take the Healthy Brain Test, and learn how diet choices, exercise, and sleep quality can affect your brain health.

Priming Your Brain for Behavior Change

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 If you want to reach an important health goal like consistently eating healthier or dramatically reducing the risk of a heart attack, it’s the small, incremental changes over time that matter the most for success.

The “all or nothing” behavior change approach usually fails: about 80% of New Year’s resolutions come undone by the middle of January, according to this study.

The reason for this lack of follow through on personal resolutions is based on how our brains have evolved: the human brain simply isn’t wired for quick, dramatic changes in long term behavior patterns.

Switching Between Exploration & Exploiting Behavior

We are, however, wired for periods of trying out new ideas and concepts, alternating with periods of doing comfortable and familiar routines. It’s a well understood concept in cognitive neuroscience called Exploration & Exploitation:

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Most of the time, we’re in “Exploit” mode: following very familiar routines (good and bad), with known rewards (good and bad), that also don’t take too much think time.

However, a little awareness can open up new possibilities that offer greater rewards, switching us into “Explore” mode. Exploration takes more time than exploiting what is already known, but the trade-off can be worth it, especially when new knowledge can lead to larger rewards.


Kickstart Behavior Change With the Little Things

A recent article in Nature Human Behavior points to how a small shift in choices can trigger other new choices. Using anonymized shopping data from 280,000 shoppers in a supermarket chain, researchers noticed that when a shopper chose a new brand of detergent, it was typically predictive of that shopper then trying out other new items.

In other words, you can prime your brain for important behavior change by starting with a couple new (but mundane) choices.

As an example: If you usually have a high sugar & high calorie breakfast, try oatmeal with a few blueberries instead. One new choice might lead to even better choices.

Curious about your brain? Take the Healthy Brain Test, and learn how diet choices, exercise, and social connections can affect your brain health.

Bilingual Brains Provide More Protection Against Alzheimer’s & Dementia

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If you speak two languages, you’ve given your brain a big boost against Alzheimer’s disease, according to a recent study published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The PNAS study recruited 85 people from Northern Italy who had all been diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s. Forty people in the study spoke only Italian, while 45 people spoke Italian and German, both languages learned from an early age (they were recruited from the town of Bolzano, on the Italian – Austrian border).

Bilingual Speakers Use More Brain Regions

There are two interesting results from the study. First, PET brain imaging scans revealed that the bilingual speakers were using significantly more brain regions compared to Italian-only speakers when engaged in study tasks:

Bilingual speakers use more brain regions associated with attention processing and executive control (yellow areas).

Bilingual speakers use more brain regions associated with attention processing and executive control (yellow areas). (Source: PNAS)

The PET imaging results support the concept that “cognitive reserve”, a term used to describe the positive effects of more cognitive abilities like higher education levels and bilingualism, can provide an enhanced ability to resist neurodegenerative conditions like dementia.


A Four to Five year Buffer?

The second important note from the study is that the bilingual speakers were on average five years older than their Italian-only counterparts, but both groups were in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.

The implication here is that the bilingual speakers in the PNAS study had an extra 5 year “buffer” of cognitive health before declining into early stage Alzheimer’s. This brain health benefit is backed up by another study that estimates a 4 year buffer against Alzheimer’s disease from speaking two languages.

Other factors also apply when looking at lifetime risk and protection against Alzheimer’s disease, such as diet choices, exercise patterns, and avoiding or managing chronic diseases. Take the Healthy Brain Test to learn more on how to maintain a healthy brain.

Tips for Dealing with Holiday Stress

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Many people look forward to the holiday season and the start of a new year. It can provide an opportunity to spend quality time with family, take a few days off from work, go on a winter vacation, and get ready for for the coming year.

However, these positive thoughts can often come with a side of holiday stress, anxiety, and depression for some. The combined effort of shopping, attending social events, entertaining guests (and dealing with annoying relatives) can quickly become overwhelming.

Try these four proven methods for keeping stress at bay during the holidays:

Exercise…and More Exercise

Aerobic exercise is key for your brain health, just as it is for your heart health. Aerobic exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators.

Added bonus: Exercise increases the production of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which helps the brain grow new neural connections.

How much exercise should you target? 30-45 minutes of brisk walking, running, elliptical cross trainer, etc, 3-4 times per week. If you don’t have access to a gym, find a hill or several flights of stairs to use for at least 30 minutes.


10 Minutes of Quiet Time Makes a Difference

Give yourself a minimum 10 minutes of quiet time each day. Make good use of this time though a simple deep breathing exercise:

  • Inhale breath for 4 seconds
  • Hold this breath for 4 seconds
  • Exhale this breath for 7 seconds
  • Repeat

This type of deep breathing activates your parasympathetic nervous system, which can lower blood pressure, heart rate, and bring your body back to homeostasis — a general feeling of relaxation and calmness.

Watch Your Alcohol Use

Alcohol is a good news/bad news story when it comes to brain health and heart health. A moderate amount of alcohol, consumed regularly, is associated with a lower risk of stroke and Alzheimer’s disease.

Excessive drinking, however, brings the promise of blackouts, long term memory loss, liver disease, higher risk of cancer, and early mortality.

So what is a moderate amount of alcohol? One drink per day for women, and 1.5 drinks per day for men. (And no “catching up” on the weekend!)

Routine, moderate amounts of alcohol raise levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good” cholesterol), and higher HDL levels are associated with greater protection against heart disease. There is also a strong correlation between good cardiovascular health and good brain health.

Get Your Sleep On

In addition to feeling rested and refreshed, good sleep helps with two very important cognitive processes that require full sleep cycles to complete:

Good sleep is necessary for new memory consolidation. New memories formed during waking hours are very fragile. Memory consolidation occurs through the sleep cycle, especially during REM sleep.

Good sleep clears away toxic metabolic debris from the brain. Amyloid beta (one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease) and other byproducts are cleared efficiently from the brain during Stage 3 & 4 sleep.

Follow these 5 habits for better sleep, and you’ll be on your way restful holiday slumber.

Happy Holidays to our readers, and best wishes for a peaceful and positive start to the New Year.

Soccer Headers Can Impair Memory

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Several new studies shed more light on the short term and long term brain health consequences of heading a soccer ball (football for everyone not in the U.S.)

Depending on position, soccer players can head the ball 500-1,500 times per year. This can mean thousands of headers over several years for many players.

So how does the brain typically react to 20 headers in a couple of hours – a typical soccer match for many players? (These 20 head impacts can also happen in a much shorter time during drills.)

Memory Performance Can Drop by 50% After Multiple Headers

An experiment conducted by the University of Stirling in Scotland sought to look at the short term effects of multiple headers on brain function.

Study participants (all soccer players) were asked to head a ball 20 times, fired from a ball machine to simulate the pace and power of a corner kick. Before and after the heading sessions, the players were tested on a number of memory performance tests.

The study results found that football heading resulted in immediate and measurable changes in brain function, including a 41% to 67% reduction in memory test performance.

The (somewhat) good news is that these changes in brain function were transient, with effects normalizing within 24 hours. The bad news is that the science isn’t very clear on the cumulative long term effects of hundreds, or thousands of headers.


Growing Awareness of “Minor” Head Impacts from Sports

In a 2013 study conducted at Albert Einstein School of Medicine, 37 amateur adult soccer players (average 22 years of amateur soccer play) underwent an advanced MRI-based imaging called diffusion tensor imaging, known as DTI.

DTI “sees” the movement of water molecules within and along axons, the nerve fibers that constitute the brain’s white matter. Disrupted movement of water molecules along axons indicates white matter damage. White matter in the brain functions as the connectors between neurons and between different brain networks.

The Einstein School study results showed that soccer players who headed the ball at a threshold above 885 times a year had significantly reduced white matter integrity in several brain regions. This study provides compelling preliminary evidence that brain changes resembling mild traumatic brain injury are associated with frequently heading a soccer ball over many years, and can manifest itself in a number of concussion symptoms.

What is also becoming clear is that youth sports teams need to take proactive steps to protect the brains of younger players — between the ages of 6 and 18, the human brain undergoes massive reorganization and growth, and is especially vulnerable to concussions.