I’m 50. Well let me back up. I grew up in a household with four brothers. Even when I was 15 and my brain was young and dew-covered, I didn’t always call them by their correct names. But now that I’m 50, all kinds of memories seem a little further out of reach than they were ten years ago. Don’t get me wrong. The offsetting benefit of experience adding perspective makes up for the fade-out of things I used to remember.
I want to be able to use that experience for at least another two or three decades. But if I can’t remember stuff…wait, what was I saying?
Fortunately we live in a time when functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can track what’s going on inside our skulls, showing us with great precision the brain locations were different work is done. For example, the Max Planck Institute in Germany recently discovered the precise spot inside our brains where complex grammar gets processed — a key trait that separates humans from other species. (Hat tip to ZDNet’s Emerging Technology Blog.)
There is a spot inside your brain that lights up on the fMRI when you need to process a simple linguistic concept: Subject, verb. Article, noun. Apes are also equipped with that capability. We, humans and apes, can understand the difference between a likely combination that conveys information, and an unlikely combination that conveys nonsense. However, when you have to understand or create a complex sentence, what lights up is an area of the brain that apes never developed.
English majors like me will be glad to find out that the ability to understand a complicated sentence provides an evolutionary advantage. Adept use of parenthetical phrases got you better mates.
This kind of knowledge is more than just scientifically interesting. It can help us prolong the useful life of our most precious physical asset.
Our brains age, but the effects of aging can be reversed. University of Illinois scientists, using the same fMRI imaging technology, discovered the brain can be exercised; and that those who train their brains can restore their ability to think and remember.
For the new study, researchers in (Professor Arthur F.) Kramer’s lab looked at areas of the brain known to be associated with executive control — scheduling, planning, juggling multiple tasks and working memory. These areas, the ventral and dorsal prefrontal cortexes, are tied to cognitive declines in aging.
Participants were 32 men and women, ages 55 to 80, and 31 younger adults. They were divided into control and experimental groups, with the latter receiving training on a time-measured task of identifying green or yellow Xs and/or whether a letter on the computer monitor was a B or C. Researchers then analyzed comprehensive fMRI data compiled before and after training of various parts of the brain and of changes in performance and times involving the tasks.
Before and after results were dramatic in ventral regions of the brain, said lead author Kirk I. Erickson, a psychology postdoctoral research associate.
“You can see,” Erickson said as he pointed to graphs showing results of activity in the left ventral region, “that even though the older adults start out with a lower amount of activation before training, those who were trained actually increased the amount of activity. You see a convergence with the young people. After training there are less age-related differences. Older adults begin to look more like the younger adults in brain activation.”
This is big news to people like me. Where can we learn these exercises? I can tell the difference between green and yellow. Hook me up!
Like magic, the consumer market responds. Specifically… Nintendo. The Mario Brothers guys. The study isn’t even officially published yet, but…
Brain Age: Train Your Brain in Minutes a Day for Nintendo DS is a fun, rewarding form of entertainment everyone can enjoy, as it helps players flex their mental muscles. Brain Age is inspired by the research of Professor Ryuta Kawashima, a prominent Japanese neuroscientist. His studies evaluated the impact of performing certain reading and mathematic exercises to help stimulate the brain.
Brain Age presents quick mental activities that help keep your DS brain in shape. Activities include quickly solving simple math problems, counting people going in and out of a house simultaneously, drawing pictures on the Touch Screen, reading classic literature out loud, and more. You can also play sudoku, the number puzzle game which has become an extremely popular feature in U.S. newspapers.
On your first day of exercise, you will take a series of tests and get a score that determines how old your brain is. This number is called your “DS Brain Age”. By performing daily exercises just minutes a day over weeks and months, the better you’ll get at the exercises and the lower your DS Brain Age will become.
Of course, baby boomers, the most paranoid about losing our edge, aren’t big users of electronic game consoles. They came on the pop culture scene a little late for us. But Nintendo has sure figured out a way to get our attention, haven’t they? And for those of us with kids, what are we supposed to say now?
“Kid, turn that infernal machine off and do your homework.”
“Dad, don’t bug me. I’m training my brain.”
“D’oh! Move over son…”
I’m sure more products like this are on their way. These next few years are going to be very surreal as consumer marketers start handing us new tools for self-transformation.