Archive for July, 2011

Augmented Reality Glasses

July 31, 2011

An article1 describes the development of glasses that allow the wearer to read the emotions from the face being viewed. They are the result of research done by Rosalind Picard of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab. The glasses use a vision algorithm to analyze 24 points on the face of the person being viewed. Head gestures and facial expressions (e.g., head tilt, lip part, pucker, smile, frown) are integrated over time to identify facial emotions (e.g., confused, agreeing, disagreeing, tinkering, concentrating, interested). These analyses are rolled up and portrayed as a traffic light system: red=negative, amber=neutral, green=positive. These are displayed on the glasses via an earpiece and LED traffic lights providing a summary of information about how the person you are talking to is responding. Eventually a full range of information could be displayed graphically, although its display would be challenging.

Unfortunately no data were providing regarding the performance of these glasses. Did they miss or misread cues? Perfect performance strains credulity, mine at least, so I would like to have seen some data. However, it does seem clear that the augmented glasses improved upon our normal unaugmented performance. They also used auditory inputs that use variations, in the pitch, tone, clip, and volume of the voice. These auditory inputs were recorded using in a small electronic badge that hangs around the neck. It was called the “jerk-o-meter.” This provided good feedback to users regarding whether they were being obnoxious or too self-effacing. They also provided good feedback to group performance regarding who was talking too much and who was being ignored.

The commercial world has expressed substantial interest in these devices. Some were interested in trying to identify units of speech that make a person sound more persuasive so that they could be taught to sales representatives to make them more persuasive. Research has also indicated that wearers retain some ability to read emotions after they removed the glasses.

Although the business case for this technology is clear, there are questions that should be raised regarding their general use. In our normal unaugmented state we can misread facial expressions. These misreadings can lead to problems in personal interactions. Would these augmentations increase our accuracy and enhance personal interactions or would we become too sensitive so that more tiffs broke out. Sometimes we do need to suppress the expression of our feelings to avoid offending people or precipitating an argument. These augmentations would make this suppression more difficult. There is much for careful considerations and discussion here.

1Adee, S. (2011). Your Seventh Sense. New Scientist, 2 July, 32-36.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Why Would Alzheimer’s Patients Perform Better on a Memory Test?

July 27, 2011

A recent study by Mickael Laisney and his colleagues that was summarized in the APS Observer1 replicated certain paradoxical results and provided an interesting explanation for the paradox. They studied the word-recognition abilities of 16 Alzheimer’s patients and eight patients with semantic dementia. Their performance was compared against healthy patients not suffering from these disorders. The patients were shown pairs of words in succession and were asked to indicate whether they recognized the second word in each pair. There is an effect known as semantic priming whereby a word is recognized more quickly (“zebra” for example) if they had recently seen a related word (“giraffe”). Patients in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease exhibit a paradoxical “hyperpriming” effect whereby they show a more pronounced priming effect than do normal control subjects. So why should people suffering from a memory disease perform better on a memory test than people not suffering from this disease?

Laisney and his colleagues offered an explanation regarding why these patients perform better. They showed that the first elements of semantic memory to deteriorate were the distinguishing characteristics of a concept such as the stripes of a zebra or the long neck of a giraffe. Once these distinguishing characteristics are lost, zebras and giraffes become generic four-legged mammals. So the concepts become more related and the priming effect increases during the early stages of the disease. As the disease advances, this hyperpriming effect disappears.

This is an interesting effect and explanation that does provide some insight into the progress of the loss of memory in Alzheimer’s and semantic dementia. However, it should be understood that this is not a test for Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s should be diagnosed by a professional, both to increase the accuracy of the diagnosis and to begin a regimen for treating the disease.

1“When the Zebra Loses Its Stripes” APS Observer February 2011, 7.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Cognitive Training and Fluid Intelligence

July 24, 2011

An earlier Healthymemory Blog Post, “Improving Cognition”, reported an interesting and important study on the successful training of fluid intelligence. Crystalized intelligence refers to knowledge that we have learned. Fluid intelligence refers to the ability to comprehend new information and to solve problems. Typically, it is fluid intelligence that declines as we age. Absent dementia, crystalized intelligence remains fairly constant and can increase. So, although this study was done using elementary and middle school children, it still holds promise for us baby boomers. Research using baby boomers is in the future. This experiment was too detailed and complicated to include in a short blog post. Fortunately, this research is available on line for free. It is “Short- and long-term benefits of cognitive training” by Susanne M. Laeggi, Martin Buschkuehl, John Jonides, and Priti Shah. It is available at www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1103228108.

The experiment did present evidence not only for the boosting of fluid intelligence, but also for its successful transfer after a 3 month hiatus from training. Unfortunately, not all students benefited from the training. Only those students who performed well on the training tasks exhibited the benefit. Students who had difficulty with the training tasks did not show the benefit. The authors also presented the following conclusion, which is as valuable as the findings themselves.

“We conclude that cognitive training can be effective and long lasting, but that there are limiting factors that must be considered to evaluate the effects of this training, one of which is individual differences in training performance. We propose that future research should not investigate whether cognitive training works, but rather should determine what training regimens and what training conditions result in the best transfer effects, investigate the underlying neural and cognitive mechanisms, and, finally, investigate for whom cognitive training is most useful.”

When you read statements like, “IQ cannot be increased”, or “Cognitive training does not transfer to other tasks,” remember that you cannot prove that there is no effect. Rather, the null hypothesis (no difference) fails to be rejected. The distinction here is subtle, but important. Moreover, the conclusion is restricted to the particular training programs, and to the population of subjects from which the sample in the study was drawn. So we need to understand why programs work and for whom they work. And when programs do not work we need to understand why and for which populations they do not work. Then they need to be modified so that they do work for specific populations. And we need to research for whom different types of cognitive training are most useful.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

A Problem with Google Alerts

July 20, 2011

As I have a blog titled Healthymemory it should not be surprising that I have a Google Alert for the topic Healthy Memory. I find it both surprising and depressing that I receive so few alerts. I am even more depressed as most of these alerts are from hucksters hawking some new miracle product for solving all your memory problems. In the past, occasionally, but only occasionally, I would be alerted to one of my posts to the healthymemory blog. Now one might think that, given the title of my blog, I would receive an alert to all my posts. But that is not in the case. It is only in rare cases that I receive an alert. I have tried to determine what types of posts would provide me an alert. Although the title to my blog is the healthymemory blog, one might content that not all posts are directly on this target. But even posts that are clearly directly on the topic are typically missed. Nor are my posts that receive a high number of hits more likely to generate an alert.

Recently I did receive an alert for the post “Glial Cells and Alzheimer’s Disease.” Although this might have been regarded as good news, when I clicked on the link, it took me to the first page of the blog, to my most recent posting. To get to the actual article I would have needed to do some searching.

There is a serious problem here if one is looking for quality posts on a specific topic. It seems that the Golden Rule is at play here. He who pays the most money is the one who sees material returned in searches or alerts. Frequency is supposed to be the primary driver, although the specifics of Google’s search algorithms are a well kept secret. But it is clear from pop culture that frequency and quality are often at odds with each other.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Second Half of Life

July 17, 2011

Gene Cohen has two medical specialties, psychiatry and gerontology. He has formulated his own depiction of the second half of life. This blog post provides a brief overview of Cohen’s depiction. It is taken from his book, The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain, which I highly recommend.

According to Cohen the second half of life consists of the following four phases: Phase I is reevaluation that occurs between the mid-thirties to the mid sixties, but most frequently between the early forties to late fifties. Phase II is liberation that occurs from the mid fifties to mid seventies, but most frequently during ones late fifties to early seventies. Phase III is recapitulation that occurs from the late sixties to the nineties, but most frequently during the late sixties through the eighties. Phase IV is continuation(encore) that runs from the late seventies to the end of life. Note that these phases are overlapping and that one does not go to sleep in one phase and then wake up in the next.

It is during Phase I, reevaluation, when we confront our own mortality. Plans and actions are shaped by a quest or crisis. Fortunately there are brain changes during this phase that spur developmental intelligence, which provides the basis for wisdom.

During Phase II, liberation, the question, “If not now, when?” is frequently asked. Plans and actions are shaped by a new sense of personal freedom to say what we want and to act upon our personal needs. This is supported by new neuron formation in the information processing part of the brain that is associated with a desire for novelty. Retirement of partial retirement provides the time for us to experiment with new experiences.

During Phase III, recapitulation, we are motivated to share our wisdom. Our plans and actions are shaped by the desire to find meaning in life as we look back, reexamine and sum up. We often feel compelled to attend to unfinished business and unresolved conflicts. Phase III is supported by the bilateral involvement of our hippocampi to the recall of our personal memories.

During Phase IV, continuation (encore), plans and actions are shaped by the desire to restate and reaffirm major themes in our lives and also to explore novel variations on those themes. Our desire to live well to the very end has a positive impact on our families and communities. Changes in our amygdalae promote positive emotions and morale.

There is a Japanese word, ikigai,which means the reason we wake up in the morning. It is important that we have ikigai throughout our entire lives, right to the very end.

Cohen relates a wealth of research and personal stories that fill out his four phases of the last half of life in The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain.

The PFC: Vulnerable for Both Young and Old

July 13, 2011

The Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) is an executive center housing pathways for the selection of information and higher order thinking. The PFC remains vulnerable throughout life, but particularly during the critical early life development window, the PFC does not mature until the early 20’s, and then starts to decline in old age. The Experience Corps1 provides a paradigm for addressing both these groups. At all ages, PFC-navigated social connections along with physical activity are essential components to maintaining brain health. The Experience Corps2 is a community based social engagement program. It partners seniors with local schools to promote purpose-drive involvement. Both the young, who benefit from the experience of the participating seniors, and the participating seniors benefit. Participating seniors have shown immediate short term gains in brain regions vulnerable to aging such as the PFC. Consequently, the people with the most to lose also have the most to gain from environmental enrichment.

The PFC is the newest and the largest region of the brain to evolve. The increasing importance of social behavior to human survival has been manifested in the continued growth of the PFC over the millenia. The PFC takes so long to develop because the ability to integrate multiple streams of information requires the maturation of physical, linguistic, and emotional sensory networks. Its extended development window involves maturation of networks that control attention steadily from childhood to adulthood allowing the efficient filtering of multiple streams of information.

As we age, difficulties in executive control become increasingly common. Longitudinal research has found that components of executive function decline earlier than memory in older community dwelling adults and that interventions targeting these components may delay and mitigate memory decline that leads to dementia. Studies of the aging human brain show that loss of brain volume is greater in the PFC than in the posterior areas of the cortex.

Healthy aging involves healthy behaviors that include physical activity, social supports and engagement, and cognitive activity. These activities remain important to both overall health and the prevention of cognitive decline and disability well into old age. Moreover, the effects of cumulative environmental risks can be reversed in later life (see the Healthymemory Blog Post “To Improve Your Memory, Build Your Hippocampus”).

The developmental psychologist Erik Erikson says that the third act of life represents an opportunity to use a lifetime of accumulated knowledge, the kind of knowledge that is not necessarily memorized from books, classroom lectures, or online searches, to find purpose. The Experience Corps find this purpose by working with young school children. Volunteers engage in mentoring activities including supporting children’s literacy and math skill development, assisting in school libraries and promoting positive conflict resolution. Volunteers exercise functions via collective problem solving with team members and teachers.

This research is still in progress. But the results already indicate gains for both the old and the young.

1Carlson, M.C. (2011). Promoting Healthy Meaningful Aging Through Social Involvement. Cerebrum, June. Available online at http://dana.org/news/cerebrum/detail.aspx?id=33556

2http://www.experiencecorps.org/index.cfm

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Why is Facebook So Popular?

July 10, 2011

I am definitely confused. No only is there an enormous number of individual users, but companies, societies, organizations, television programs, and many other entities also feel a necessity to establish a presence on Facebook. Although most of these entities have good websites, they still feel compelled to maintain a Facebook presence.

Personally, I find regard Facebook to be an annoyance. It can be difficult to use, and I see little value in it. I have loads of requests from people I don’t know who indicate that they want to friend me. Early on, I consented because I did not want to be rude. Even now I worry that I might refuse the request of someone I did know long ago. I still accept requests from people who have been recommended by someone I know. But I do this only not to offend a true friend. I know of nothing that ever develops from this “friending.” With the exception of birthday greetings I receive from old acquaintances, I have seen nothing of value on Facebook. Just one inanity after another. I worry about people who do engage extensively in these activities.

I asked a friend of mine, who is extensively knowledgeable about cyberspace and who apparently spends significant time there, what he thinks about Facebook. His response was, “Never have touched it.  Who wants to be “connected” to everybody out there?!  Not me!”

I think he raises a good question. An earlier Healthymemory Blog post entitled “How Many Friends are Too Many?” addressed that very question. An evolutionary biologist, Robin Dunbar, came up with a number he modestly named, “Dunbar’s number.” He bases this number on the size of the human brain and its complexity. He calculates that the maximum number of relationships our brain can keep track of at one time to be about 150 . This number includes all degrees of relationships. This is the maximum number of relationships. The number of close, meaningful relationships is much smaller. He estimates that we have a core group of about five people with whom we speak frequently. I find this absolute number a tad small, but to be in the general ballpark. At the other extreme there are about 100 people with whom we speak about once a year. The 150 number is an absolutely maximum of people we can even generously consider as friends. So Facebook users who have friended several hundred friends have essentially rendered the term “friend” meaningless.

MIT social psychologist Sherry Turkle contends that social networking is eroding our ability to live comfortably offline.1 Although she makes a compelling argument, it is not the technology that is to be blamed, but rather how we use the technology. After all, the technology is not going to go away. There might be underlying psychological, genetic, or epigenetic substrates that contribute to the problem. Facebook, itself, can be regarded as providing affordances that contribute to this abuse.

1Price, M. (2011). Questionnaire; Alone in the Crowd. Monitor on Psychology, June, 26-28.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Alzheimer’s and Amyloid Plaques

July 6, 2011

Much research is being done to develop tests for the early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease. But conclusive diagnosis must await death and an autopsy. Amyloid plaques are the defining characteristic of Alzheimer’s Disease.1 But these require an autopsy to observe. Virtually everyone with the ailment has these plaques present in their brain. Thus, the presence of amyloid plaques appears to be a necessary condition for the disease. However, their presence is not a sufficient condition. There are people whose autopsies find that their brains are ravaged by amyloid plaques, yet they never exhibited any signs of cognitive impairment.

So the question is are the amyloid plaques the cause of Alzheimer’s or are they a symptom? An earlier Healthymemory Blog Post, “Glial Cells and Alzheimer’s Disease”, discussed the possible role that glial cells play. In spite of a large amount of research, we still don’t know what causes Alzheimer’s. Nevertheless, drugs have been developed. To this point, no drug has been found to cure or stop the progression of Alzheimer’s, but there are drugs that slow the progression of Alzheimer’s. A friend of mine told me about his father-in-law who suffers from Alzheimer’s. The father-in-law’s disease has progressed to the point where he does not remember who his son-in-law is. He no longer remembers who he himself is. Still he receives expensive drugs that will slow his death as well as slow his release from his miserable state.

Much work is also being done to develop tests that can diagnose Alzheimer’s early. The hope is that early diagnosis will enable early treatment which will either cure Alzheimer’s or reduce the progression of the disease to a crawl. But, there are no treatments yet. Personally, I have no interest in taking a test that will inform me I have an incurable condition. I do, however, applaud those who take tests and participate in experimental trials of drugs with the hope that they will lead to a successful treatment.

It should be remembered that all tests are flawed and produce false alarms. That is they can inform you that you have the condition, when in fact you do not. Also remember the cases discussed above in which brains that are ravaged with amyloid plaques belonged to people who exhibited no evidence of cognitive decline. How can this be? The most prominent theory is that these people had a cognitive reserve that either prevented the occurrence of the disease or slowed its progression to the point where it was not noticeable. These cognitive reserves are thought to be the result of people who stayed mentally active. Leading a healthy lifestyle is also important. So the path I am following is to build up this cognitive reserve. The Healthymemory Blog is devoted to activities and information that should be helpful in building this cognitive reserve.

1Weir, K. (2011). Memory keepers. Monitor on Psychology, June, 32-35.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Could the AARP Be Telling Us Not to Retire?

July 3, 2011

One might think so from the title of an article in AARP The Magazine, Why Work is Good for Brain Health.1 The article reports the results of a study from the RAND Center for the Study of Aging and the University of Michigan. This study showed that cognitive performance levels drop earlier in countries that have younger retirement ages.

So what is going on here? Is the American Association for Retired People (AARP) discouraging people from retiring? First of all, it should be realized that not all of the members of the AARP are retired. Secondly, the article goes on to explain the reasons the cited research offered for the harmful effects of early retirement. One reason was that the social interactions that occur in most work places decline when someone retires. Social interaction is believed to be one of the activities that establish a “cognitive reserve.” This cognitive reserve provides a brain-backup system that allows you to function normally even when there is age-related brain damage. A decrease in mentally stimulating activities can also occur when someone retires, Mentally stimulating activities also play an important role in establishing a cognitive reserve.

So retirement should not be harmful if it is an active retirement with social engagements and mentally stimulating activities. The article cites a Japanese word, ikigai. It means “the reason for which we wake up in the morning.” In other words it is our reason for living. If our reason for living has been our career, then we need to establish a new reason for living when we retire, And this reason for living should include social engagements and mentally stimulating activities. Physical activity is also important.

With respect to mentally stimulating activities and social engagement, the Healthymemory Blog has something to offer. It is hoped that the posts themselves provide mental stimulation. Mnemonic techniques provide an activity that not only boosts memory performance, but also provide mental exercise. Transactive memory refers to memories held in the minds of our fellow humans and in technology. So social engagements that engage the memories of others is highly recommended. Technology ranges from the printed word in books or magazines to the enormous wealth of information in cyberspace. Potential transactive memory refers to all the information available in fellow humans and technology. It is overwhelming, but provides a source for cognitive growth. Available transactive memory refers to information that you know exists, but you don’t know who knows or where that information is. Accessible transactive memory refers to information that you know where to find or whom to ask. And the most important and personal information resides in your own biological memory.

1http://www.aarp.org/health/brain/info-03-2011/keeping-your-brain-plugged-in.print…. 6/19/2011.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2011. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.