Friday, April 21, 2017

Just when you thought brain games made you smarter

Waashington D.C. [USA], Apr 21 : You may want to be skeptical of ads declaring you can rev up your brain's performance by challenging it with products from the growing brain-training industry, according to a recent study.

The team of Florida State University researchers found no evidence that the games increased overall cognitive abilities.

"Our findings and previous studies confirm there's very little evidence these types of games can improve your life in a meaningful way," said Researcher Wally Boot, an expert on age-related cognitive decline.

Researcher Neil Charness said an increasing number of people believe brain training helps protect them against memory loss or cognitive disorders.

"Brain challenges like crossword games are a popular approach, especially among baby boomers, as a way to try to protect cognition," Charness noted.

That popularity has turned the brain-training industry into a billion-dollar business. Brain games are available online and through mobile apps that typically sell for about 15 dollars a month or 300 dollars for lifetime memberships. But advertising for this rapidly growing business sector has sometimes used inflated claims. The Federal Trade Commission fined one brain-training company 50 million dollars for false advertising, which was later lowered to 2 million dollars.

"More companies are beginning to be fined for these types of inflated claims and that's a good thing," Boot said. "These exaggerated claims are not consistent with the conclusions of our latest study."

The FSU team's study focused on whether brain games could boost the "working memory" needed for a variety of tasks. In their study, they set up one group of people to play a specially designed brain-training video game called "Mind Frontiers," while another group of players performed crossword games or number puzzles.

All players were given lots of information they needed to juggle to solve problems. Researchers tested whether the games enhanced players' working memory and consequently improved other mental abilities, such as reasoning, memory and processing speed.

That's the theory behind many brain games: If you improve overall working memory, which is fundamental to so much of what we do every day, then you can enhance performance in many areas of your life.

The team examined whether improving working memory would translate to better performance on other tasks or as the researchers called it: "far transfer."

"It's possible to train people to become very good at tasks that you would normally consider general working memory tasks: memorizing 70, 80, even 100 digits," Charness said. "But these skills tend to be very specific and not show a lot of transfer. The thing that seniors in particular should be concerned about is, if I can get very good at crossword puzzles, is that going to help me remember where my keys are? And the answer is probably no."

Charness noted that other research finds aerobic exercise, rather than mental exercise, is great for your brain. Physical exercise can actually cause beneficial structural changes in the brain and boost its function. He predicts "exer-gaming," which combines exercise with brain games, will increase in popularity in the 21st century.

Your Brain on Drugs: Neuroscientists Narc on Legal Marijuana

The unknown, or ignored, risks of THC endanger adolescent brain development.

That heady scent of open-air pot-smoking is just another sign of springtime come to D.C. nowadays. (Move over, cherry blossoms.) Wednesday near dusk I met an otherwise upstanding young guy on the sidewalk in leafy residential Northwest, waiting for a ride with a crackling joint in hand—not an unusual sight, but it was the eve of the "marijuana holiday," I remembered: April 20, or 420, reportedly popularized by goofball friends of Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh.

The District legalized recreational and medical marijuana in 2015, but stodgy Congress is still blocking its recreational commercial sale—which means that girl who called her dealer from the Trader Joe's line the other day might have been breaking the law. On Election Night, California, Massachusetts, Nevada, and Maine legalized recreational marijuana, joining Oregon and Alaska—and Washington state and Colorado, who'd blazed (get it?) the trail back in 2012. But even they've found no functional regulatory framework to manage the mind-altering herb's non-criminal commercial distribution. And there's no simple solution for its dangerous neuropsychological side-effects either, proven to disturb teenagers' growing brains. (Like alcohol and cigarettes, recreational marijuana finds its way into the possession of the wily underaged.)
Disturbing your teenaged brain might sound like a great time to some. But it's not quite as simple as feeding your head, as Grace Slick said, or opening the "doors of perception" the way they did in good old days. That's because the concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol (aka THC, the drug's main psychoactive ingredient) in today's weed blows the doors off the leaf your papa rolled. Back in the 1960s and '70s, marijuana had a relatively even distribution of THC and cannabinoid compounds—chemicals whose effects cancel each other out—and so the dangers to neurodevelopment were not nearly so grave in those days, Dr. Steven Laviolette explained to me.
To better understand the correlation between THC exposure and schizophrenia, Laviolette, a professor in the department of Anatomy and Cell Biology and Psychiatry at the University of Western Ontario's medical school, studies the effects of THC on lab rats. In his lab, he exposes "the rat equivalent of the teenaged brain to chronic levels of THC"—the only way, pre-clinically, to control exactly how much of the chemical the brain received. He's found that "exposure to high levels of THC during the adolescent period of brain development increased the likelihood of developing schizophrenia-related symptoms into adulthood."
An adult brain exposed to the same amount of THC shows minor deficits in memory and cognition, he said—but "nothing comparable with the sorts of changes we see with adolescent exposure." In Canada, where handsome young prime minister Justin Trudeau has made legalizing marijuana a high priority for the year, "the biggest concern really is exposing the teenaged brain to strains of marijuana that have really high levels of THC." As it should be here in the U.S.
But, when asked whether he worried Canadian and American legalization efforts were risky and reckless, motivated by political fashion more than good legislative sense, Laviolette declined to go full narc with me. "It's definitely moving ahead ahead of the science," he allowed.
Indeed your garden-variety store-bought marijuana won't likely be well-regulated. And it may not be accurately marked. Laviolette confirmed the potential discrepancy between real and reported THC levels by testing a strain purchased in Colorado: Its label read a lower THC count than he measured in the lab. "You can draw comparisons to the tobacco industry," he said. "Once the tobacco industry realized that the addictive compound in cigarettes was nicotine, they started breeding the plants to have higher and higher levels of nicotine—so we're sort of seeing a similar sort of market-driven increase in THC content." And the mislabeling? It's as much a product of imprecision as it a symptom of dangerously cynical salesmanship.
And conflating cannabinoid therapies for cancer patients and opioid addicts with the dried marijuana flower is another. "It's not about medicine, it's about economics," Dr. Hoover Adger, Jr., a professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told me—noting that, "Medical marijuana is an oxymoron." (You don't pull the digitalis root out of the earth and give it to a heart patient to chew on, Dr. Adger added.)
"The fact that this is now being decided by ballot initiatives? That's just contrary to everything that most of us know about medicine. Campaigns and public decisions by residents of 28 states to make medical and/or recreational marijuana legal ignore medical data on cognitive impairment, the likelihood of addiction and abuse, and the simple fact that "when you dump mood altering substances into the middle of a key formative period for young adults and adolescents, that's a major problem."
And Dr. Sion Kim Harris, pediatrics professor at Harvard and co-director of the Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research at Boston Children's Hospital, would frame marijuana legalization as "Big Tobacco redux." Massachusetts is in the midst of managing its recreational marijuana legalization rollout, thanks to a successful ballot measure last year. The likeness to big tobacco, Harris said, is obvious—"in terms of advertising and creating products that are very attractive for young people, even children, and the advertising that says 'marijuana is harmless,' 'it's natural,' 'the war on drugs hasn't worked, and this is a social justice issue.' They're coming at this from all different angles."
Meanwhile, "Those of us who are in pediatric health, the vast majority of us, in terms of who I know and my colleagues, are against legalization," Dr. Harris said. Because of the teenage brain's high neuroplasticity—its formative capacity to learn and grown, to stretch and adapt to stimuli—potential for addiction is at an all-time high, so to speak. Contrary to popular myth, addiction to marijuana is an increasingly common condition. Like any drug, Dr. Harris said, marijuana "activates the same circuitry in the brain that every single other addictive substance activates, and hijacks it." Indeed, several of the cannabis studies compiled in a volume published this January by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine monitor addicts' withdrawal symptoms and record rates of cannabis dependence.
While April 20 is still a secular high holiday, a day that could lose its specialness in an era of unrestricted ganja, April 21 is a day to withdraw. Lighter and more manageable than those experienced by addicts to opiates or prescription sedatives like Xanax, weed withdrawal still brings the sort of symptoms that make some people want to smoke it in the first place. Irritability, sleeplessness—sort of like seasonal allergies. April is supposed to be the cruelest month after all.

Aaron Hernandez's brain to be examined for degenerative disease

Family plans to donate drain to scientists

CNN) - The family of Aaron Hernandez plans to donate his brain to scientists to determine whether he had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease linked to a number of NFL athletes.
After some disagreement over its custody, the brain will be released to the Boston University CTE Center for further examination, according to the Worcester County District Attorney's Office.
Earlier on Thursday, Hernandez family attorney Jose Baez said the brain was being held "illegally" by the Massachusetts Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
"It is our position that they are holding Aaron Hernandez's brain illegally," he said. "They have released the body and withheld Aaron's brain."
The medical examiner's office said it wanted to complete its investigation into the death before releasing the brain.
"No one is going to stand in the way of the family's wishes for Boston University to have Aaron Hernandez's brain," Dan Bennett, secretary of public safety and security, said in a written statement.
The brain custody battle came a day after prison officials said Hernandez, a former NFL star for the New England Patriots, hanged himself with a bedsheet attached to a window in his prison cell.
Hernandez, 27, was serving a sentence of life without parole for the June 2013 murder of Odin Lloyd. His death came less than a week after he was acquitted in a separate double-murder trial.
Baez, who has been retained by the Hernandez family to investigate his death, had said he may take the medical examiner's office to court.
Hernandez's body is at Faggas Funeral Home in Watertown, Massachusetts, according to funeral home secretary Jennifer Smith.

CTE examination

Baez said the family made arrangements for the Boston University CTE Unit to take possession of the brain, and the medical examiner's office agreed to those plans.
"The family of Aaron Hernandez has decided to donate to this study so that we could possibly help other young men who decide to play football, and to help further that cause, and also possibly shed light and more evidence on this case," Baez said.
The Boston University CTE Center, led by Dr. Ann McKee, has found evidence of CTE in the brains of 200 people, including in high school and professional football players.
The degenerative disease is believed to be caused by repeated head trauma, and has been found in famed NFL players including Junior Seau and Dave Duerson. Scientists can only diagnose the disease after death.
The CTE Center declined to discuss Hernandez's brain.
"It is our policy that we do not and cannot discuss any ongoing, completed or potential case(s) without specific consent from the family," the center said.

Could young blood boost the ageing brain?

In a recent study, mice regained important memory skills after receiving transfusions of blood from human umbilical cords.

With increasing age brains shrink and change in numerous of other ways, leading to for example memory impairment and higher incidence of stroke and dementia. There are also changes in hormone and neurotransmitter levels. 
A new study on rodents has shown that young blood could however counter the effects of ageing brains, hinting that it may harbour clues to the "fountain of youth".
Researchers say blood from human umbilical cords appears to have helped reverse memory loss in ageing mice.
The conclusions of the study suggest that something in young blood is important in maintaining mental acuity.
The findings were published in Nature.
Setting the stage for new drugs
No one, however, is saying that cord blood could be a magic bullet against Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia.
For one, any effects seen in elderly rodents may fail to translate to humans.
Instead, the findings might set the stage for new drugs that target the dementia process, said study lead author Joseph Castellano. He's an instructor in neurology at Stanford University School of Medicine.
"Part of what makes this exciting is that it suggests there's more communication between the blood and brain than we thought," Castellano said.
The study builds on earlier work by the same Stanford team. There, the researchers found that old lab mice benefited from infusions of plasma (the liquid portion of blood) from young mice.
Specifically, the old mice showed improvements in learning and memory. This was measured by the ability to accomplish tasks like navigating a maze or building a nest.
'Surprising' effects
The aim of the new study, Castellano said, was to see whether injections of human plasma given to mice could have similar effects.
It turned out that they did – at least when the plasma came from umbilical cords. Plasma from young adults had less of an impact. And plasma from older adults, ages 61 to 82, had no benefit at all.
That led to a critical question: What is it about umbilical cord blood that's special?
The researchers found evidence that it might be a protein called TIMP2. It is present in high levels in cord plasma, they said, but declines with age.
What's more, injections of TIMP2 benefited older rodents' brains in the same way that cord plasma did.
Castellano said it was "surprising" that a single protein had such effects.

But, he noted, TIMP2 could be "upstream" of many biological processes. It belongs to a family of proteins that regulate other critical proteins. Those proteins, in turn, have the task of "chopping up" yet more proteins that exist in the matrix surrounding body cells.
But researchers know little about how TIMP2 acts on the brain, Castellano said.
"Now, we really need to get a better understanding of what it's doing in the brain," he said. "We are not saying we've found the protein that's responsible for brain ageing."
Dr Marc Gordon is a professor at the Litwin-Zucker Center for Alzheimer's Disease and Memory Disorders at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, New York.
Drugs have been 'elusive'
He agreed that the study identifies a protein "target" that should be studied further.
"But this is not saying that cord blood is a cure for ageing," Gordon stressed.
And it's probably unrealistic to use cord blood as a dementia treatment, said Castellano.
Nor can anyone predict whether TIMP2 will point researchers toward new drugs for dementia. Findings in lab animals often fail to pan out in humans.
Plus, Gordon said, this study involved mice that were old, but did not have an "animal model" of Alzheimer's. That refers to lab mice that are genetically modified to have Alzheimer's-like brain pathology.
"What this could mean for human disease is purely speculative," Gordon said.
Drugs for age-related brain disease have so far been "elusive", Castellano said. The available medications for dementia symptoms have limited effects, and cannot stop the disease from progressing.
"We're excited," Castellano added, "about this knowledge that there are proteins present in the blood that evolve over the life span, and may affect brain function."
Researchers still have much to learn about the effects of young blood and how it may benefit ageing brains. 

‘Mind-blowing’ discovery could revolutionise our understanding of how brain works

'The implications, if this interpretation is correct, are massive'
The human brain could be organised in a subtly different way than previously thought Alamy

A study of people born with one hand suggests neuroscientists may have fundamentally misunderstood the way the brain is organised, a scientist has claimed.

Dr Tamar Makin, of University College London, said the new theory – if proved correct – would have “massive implications”, adding it was “mind-blowing” to think that scientists could have been mistaken for so long.
An international team of researchers from the UK, Israel, Canada and Switzerland used an MRI scanner to monitor the brains of people who were born with one hand as they performed everyday tasks like handling money or wrapping a present.
They found the area of the brain associated with the missing hand was active when they used different body parts, such as the arm, foot and mouth.
Importantly this happened when these other body parts were used to perform the same function as the second hand in people with both, the researchers 
This suggests that the brain is not organised so that each area is responsible for an individual body part, but that different areas are responsible for different functions.
Dr Makin said: “If true, this means we’ve been misinterpreting brain organisation based on body part, rather than based on function. 
“It’s kind of mind blowing for me to think we could have been getting this wrong for so long. 
“The implications, if this interpretation is correct, are massive.”
The study, she explained, suggested that it might be that “the hand area is not the hand area per se, but just the part of the brain in charge of function 'normally' carried by that hand”. 
“In intact participants, all this is carried by the non-dominant hand,” Dr Makin said.
“But the fact that we see such a striking different representation in that area in congenital one-handers might suggest that this is not actually the hand area. “
She stressed the idea was still only a working theory.
If correct, it would be further evidence of the brain’s ‘plasticity’ – the idea that the brain is capable of reshaping itself and is not organised along rigid unchanging lines.
It is thought greater understand of the mechanisms involved could help find better ways for people with prosthetic limbs to control them using their mind.
“If we, as neuroscientists, could harness this process, we could provide a really powerful tool to better healthcare and society,” Dr Makin said. 
“Unfortunately, this process is currently quite restricted in the brains of adults. 
“But by learning how this occurs spontaneously in one-handers, we can get a handle on what we might be able to achieve.”