Archive for April, 2015

Behavioral Training to Improve Sight

April 29, 2015

This title is the second part of the article “Improving Vision Among Older Adults:  Behavioral Training to Improve Sight,” by DeLoss, Watanabe, and Andersen in Psychological Science Online First, March 6 2015 as dii:10.1177/0956797614567510.  Age-related decline in visual function could be due to optical, retinal, cortical, or pathological changes, there also appears to be a cortical locus as a result of decreased inhibition  in the visual cortex.

This study assessed whether perceptual learning could be a possible intervention to counteract age related declines in contrast sensitivity.  Younger and older subjects performed an orientation-discrimination task using sine wave gratings that varied in contrast.  The researchers assessed whether training improved performance for targets at a specific location, transferred to targets at an untrained orientation, and transferred to other tasks ( near- and far-acuity tasks, for example).

Sixteen younger adults (mean age=22.43) and 16 older adults (mean age=71.23) participated in the experiment.  The experiment consisted of 1.5 hr per day of testing and training over 7 days.  Participants were required to complete the study within 3 weeks of their first testing session.

The major finding of the study is that five days of training for older adults resulted in performance that was not statistically different from that of younger adults prior to training.  Clearly perceptual learning  can be used to counter age-related declines in contrast sensitivity.  The authors note that a these improvements are the result of changes in sensory process and not due to the optical efficiency of the eye.

Both age groups also showed significant transfer of learning to an untrained orientation.   Another important finding is that both younger and older individuals showed significant improvement in acuity with perceptual-learning training.  These improvements  in acuity were associated with the range of acuity most problematic for each age group.  Younger individuals showed an improvement in far acuity, whereas older individuals showed improvement in near acuity.  These improvements were substantial resulting in an average of from two to three additional letters on the acuity charts after training.   So the benefits of this training is not restricted to older adults.

This research provides strong evidence of the plasticity of visual processing as we age.  Further research is needed to determine how much more improvement could be gained by additional training.  Let us hope that such research will be done expeditiously and that programs will be developed for dissemination to the general population..

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The Latest Discoveries in Neuroplasticity

April 26, 2015

These can be found in the book, The Brain’s Way of Healing:  Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity by Norman Dodge, M.D.  This is the sequel to his earlier book, The Brain That Changes Itself. I am especially impressed as when I was a graduate student, there was no such thing as neuroplasticity.  Once damage was done to the nervous system, it could neither be treated nor repaired.  The nervous system was fixed and not amenable to change.  So The Brain That Changes Itself was eye opening and overwhelming.  The Brain’s Way of Healing does not disappoint.

Doidge is a Canadian psychiatrist who has received research funding from both the National Institute of Mental Health in the United States and the National Health Research and Development Program of Health Canada.  And obviously he is an accomplished writer who knows this topic intimately.  You can visit his webpage http://www.normandoidge.com.

He relates case histories, explains the underlying  science, and documents this research with references and notes in the back of the book.

The first chapter discusses a physician who specialized in the treating pain discovering how Chronic Pain can be unlearned.   He discovered this in learning how to cope with his personal chronic pain and then formulated a course of treatment using this method.

The next chapter presented the case history of a Parkinson’s sufferer who learned how to walk off his Parkinsonian symptoms.  This showed how physical exercise helps fend off degenerative disorders and can defer dementia.

The third chapter discusses the stages of neuroplastic healing explaining how and why it works.

Chapter four explains how the brain can be rewired with light by using light to reawaken dormant neural circuits.

Chapter 5 introduces us to Moshe FeldenKrais, a physicist who had a Black Belt in Judo and who developed a means of healing serious brain problems through mental awareness of movement.

Chapter 6 explains how a blind mind learned to see using the method of Feldenkraus, Buddhist and other Neuroplastic Methods.

The seventh Chapter discusses a strange device called the PoNS that stands for Portable Neuromodulation Simulator because when it stimulates the brain, it modifies and corrects how the neurons are firing.  It stimulates modulation to reverse symptoms.  It has been successful in treating traumatic Brain Injury, Parkinson’s, Stroke, and Multiple Sclerosis.

The eighth chapter discusses how sound can be used and the special connection between music and the brain.  It has been successful in treating dyslexia, autism, attention deficit, and sensory process disorder.s

There are three appendices.  The first presents a general approach to Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and brain problems.  The second appendix discusses matrix repatterning for  TBI that has been developed by Canadian clinical Dr. George Bush.  Appendix 3 discusses neurofeedback for Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), Anxiety, and TBI.

After reading all this, it is understandable that you might conclude that this is bunk, it is simply too outlandish.  Please accept my assurances that this is not the case, and that this is genuine research at the forefront of knowledge.  I hope the Veterans Hospitals are applying this research to veterans suffering from trauma.  And I would like to encourage sufferers of these maladies to read about these treatments.  However, I am reluctant to do so, because there is little information on where information can be found to pursue these treatments.  Perhaps if it were, the limited resources available would be overwhelmed.  It will take time for this research to trickle down with resultant treatment centers employing and furthering the research.

Cognitive Shields Protecting Against Dementia

April 22, 2015

This post is based largely on “Cognitive Shields” by Andrew Merluzzi in the .  Psychological Science Observer (February 2015, 21-28).   There have been many previous Healthymemory blog posts about autopsies of people who have exhibited no symptoms of Alzheimer’s while alive, but who nevertheless have the so-called amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles which provide the definitive basis for diagnosing the disease.  Now I have a percentage to place on this statement.  About a third of post-mortem brains with the telltale features of dementia—protein tangles or miniature strokes-came from people who never exhibited symptoms during life.

The explanation that has been offered for this is that certain individuals might build buffers over their lifetimes called cognitive reserve.  This post provides information on research on the cognitive shields that build this cognitive reserve.  Actively engaging the brain can boost older adult’s recall power.  One experiment randomly more than 200 adults (ages 60-90) to engage in a particular type of activity for 15 hours a week over the course of three months.  Some activities required significant cognitive investment such as digital photography or quilting.  The other participants engaged in more leisurely activities such as listening to classical music or completing word puzzles.  At the end of the experiment participants who engaged in digital photography or quilting showed a significant improvement in memory compared to the leisurely activity participants.

Another experiment  recruited 16 older adults to play a video game called “Neuroracer.”   Participants attempted to drive a car down a virtual road, keeping constant speed and lane position.  As they were doing this they also had to pay attention to sporadically appearing shapes, pressing a button whenever they observed a green circle.  The game became more difficult as performance improved.  The comparison group played an easier version of the game where they had to drive or pay attention to shapes, but not simultaneously.  The group who played the more difficult version of the game scored better on unrelated cognitive tests. Brain imaging with an EEG revealed noticeable differences at the neural level.  Participants who played the difficult version of the game  showed more coherent activation patterns in cognitive control networks including the prefrontal cortex.  These cognitive gains were still apparent six months later.

Physical exercise is also important as it increases the flow of oxygen to the brain.  See the healthy memory blog post “To Improve Your Memory, Build Your Hippocampus” (use the healthy memory blog search box).

Another study investigated whether exercise can induce neuroprotective effects for people who have a genetic risk for Alzheimer’s.  One hundred older adults many who carried the APOE gene which increases the risk of Alzheimer’s were studied.  The participants explained their normal exercise habits and had their brains scanned twice over a period of 18 months.  It was found that exercise was critically important for the at risk group with the APOE gene.  People with this gene who didn’t exercise exhibited a 3% decrease in hippocampal volume over time.  Those carrying the gene who did incorporate exercise into their lives—more than 15 minutes of moderate exercise at least three days a week—didn’t show any decreases in hippocampal volume.  The conjectures for this result are that staying active might reduce inflammation in the brain and promote neural growth in the hippocampus building  up cognitive and brain reserve.

Research has also found that bilingual older adults have more robust white matter then monolingual adults.  This suggests that the myelin on axons in these her bundles is more intact, which would help  to buffer against age-related changes in the size and structure of the brain.  Sone also argue that it might never be too late to learn another language.  But this does take commitment.

There are many more healthy memory blog posts on the cognitive reserve and the benefits of both cognitive and physical exercise.  It is important that this information be disseminated.  People should know that they need not be passive victims of dementia, nor should they wait for a medical treatment or vaccine to treat or prevent Alzheimer’s.  To a large exert we control our own fates and should take action.

Belief

April 18, 2015

Our beliefs direct our lives and how we think.  The initial part of this post comes from an American Scientist (4 April 2015, 28-33) article by Graham Lawton.

Initially our beliefs are determined by default.  Children believe what they are told.  This is fortunate, otherwise the child’s development would be retarded.  So our brains are credulous.  A brain imaging study by Sam Harris illustrated how our brain responds to belief.  People were put in a brain scanner and asked whether the believed in various written statements.   Statements that people believed in produced little characteristic brain activity, just a few flickers in regions associated with reasoning and emotional reward.  However, disbelief  produced longer and stronger activation in regions associated with deliberation and decision making.  Apparently it takes the brain longer to reach a state of disbelief.  Statements that were not believed also activated regions associated  with emotion such as pain and disgust.  These responses make sense when regarded from an evolutionary perspective.

There is also a feeling of rightness that accompanies our beliefs.  This makes evolutionary sense except in the case of delusional beliefs.  People suffering from mental illness can feel quite strongly about delusional beliefs.  And when we here a belief from a friend or acquaintance we find to be incredulous, we might ask, “Are you out of your mind?”

So a reasonable question is where does this feel in of rightness originate.  One is our evolved biology, that has already been discussed.   Another is personal biology.  The case of mental illness has already been mentioned, but there are less extreme examples that researchers have found.  For example, conservatives generally react more fearfully than liberals to frightening images as reflected in measures of arousal such as skin conductance and eye-blink rate.

Of course, the society we keep influences both what we believe and the feeling of rightness.  We tend to associate with like minded people and this has a reinforcing effect on our beliefs.

The problem with beliefs is that progress depends on the questioning of beliefs.  The development and advancement of science depended on questioning not only religious beliefs, but the adequacy of these beliefs.  Progress in the political arena depended on questioning the validity of the concepts of royalty and privileged positions.

Beliefs are a good default position.  Absent beliefs, it would be both difficult and uncomfortable to live.  Nevertheless, beliefs should be challenged when they are clearly incorrect or when they are having undesired consequences,

My personal belief about beliefs is that we manage to live on the basis of internal models we develop about the world.  But I don’t believe that any of my beliefs are certain.  They are weighted with probabilities that can change as the result of new information (data) or as the result of new thinking and reasoning.  Even my most strongly held beliefs are still hedged with some small degree of uncertainty.

A good example of this is Pascal’s argument for believing in God.  His argument was that the payoff for not believing in God could be extremely painful.  However, even if one’s belief was infinitesimally small, one should believe.  I have always found this to be one of the few philosophical arguments to be compelling.  So I believe in God.  Anyone who does believe in God has the comfort of this belief while living.  And if there is no God, one will be dead and have no means of knowing that one was wrong.

Richard Dawkins is a brilliant scientist that has made significant contributions to science.  However, he is one of the most outspoken atheists.  Recently he has admitted that he does have some uncertainty and that he is more accurately an agnostic.  However, he argues that he is far enough down on the agnosticism scale to call himself an atheist.  Here we have a stupid argument from a brilliant man.

I find that  many of the problems people have regarding the existence of God stem from religion.  It is important to keep in mind that religions are human institutions and are flawed.  Religions have done much good, but they have also done harm.  Apart from Pascal’s wager, I have a philosophical need for God.  Of course, I realize that my philosophical needs are not necessarily supported by reality.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. 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 Bridge to Brain Power

April 15, 2015

The title to this post is the title of an article in the March 2015 AARP Bulletin by Jon Saraceno.  Don’t let the source of this article lead you to believe that Bridge is only for retirees.  Bridge is indeed a bridge to to brain power for both the young and the old.  Perhaps the best endorsement for Bridge is that both Warren Buffet and Bill Gates are passionate devotees.

Playing bridge makes demands on all your cognitive resources.  First of all, one needs to learn how to bid and to communicate with one’s partner regarding the bidding.  Once the bid is set, the declarer’s partner, called the dummy. sets down her cards so everyone can see what she had.  Given this information the declarer needs to formulate a strategy for winning the hand.  He knows what cards the opponents have and he tries to make informed guesses as to who has what cards and how the suits are divided.  The defenders, seeing only the cards in dummy, needs to formulate a strategy to defeat the bid.  The first lead from the opponents provides hint of the strategy.  Once the hand starts, everyone except the dummy needs to keep track of what cards have been played and try to estimate who has which unplayed cards.  So bridge places strong demands on both long and short term memory, on the ability to strategize, and to strategize in a dynamic environment.  To do all this one needs a strong ability to focus.  The bottom line here is that Bridge challenges our cognitive resources and helps up build and maintain healthy memories.

There are a variety of learning resources, and one can play automated games so one is not embarrassed by one’s poor play.  The American Contract Bridge League, http://www.abcl.org, has a number of programs developed to make learning how to play Bridge simple.

They have a new Learn to Play Bridge software program, a learn as you play tutorial.

Free personal computer software programs, including Learn to Play Bridge I for beginners.

Learn Bridge in a Day?..a five hour course geared for rookies

All these programs are available at the American Contract Bridge League website, http://www.abcl.org.

Once you have reached the point of not being embarrassed or have developed a thick enough skin to not be embarrassed, then you can enjoy the benefits of social interaction.  Even if you are a poor player you can likely find a group of people at a beginning level.  I was a very poor player, yet some truly good players who played bridge competitively, managed to tolerate me.

You might have noted that I used the past tense with regard to myself.  Unfortunately, I engage in many activities that are cognitively exhausting, so my cognitive resources have been too exhausted for me to play.  However, I do plan to change that in the future, perhaps after I retire from my formal job.  Bridge provides both cognitive and social exercises that promote healthy memories.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. 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.

An Exemplary University

April 12, 2015

And that university would be the one that awarded me a doctorate, the University of Utah.  Of course, that is not the reason I regard the University of Utah as being an exemplary university.  My opinion is based on what I read the Spring ’15 edition of Continuum.  It was rated No. 2 by bestcolleges.com in its most recent list of the top 50 colleges nationwide for students ages 25 and older.

One of the likely reasons for this high rating could be found in a later article in the issue titled “Online.”  It is using MOOCA (see previous post) in a hybrid learning approach that includes flipped classrooms and new degrees.  They offer 478 complete online courses and1,051 online course sections.  There are 29,046 students enrolled in these online sections of which 19,573 are  totally unique.

Hybrid courses refer to “flipped classrooms”  where students can  watch short videotaped lectures and review key concepts online  while using class time to engage  in interactive problem-solving  and discussion with the professor.

When I attended college, especially when the courses where early in the morning, I took notes in my illegible handwriting and then tried to decipher  them later in the evening.  I only wish I were attending college now.  Here is a description of one online course.  It included a blog where students could compare notes.  Lectures were taught in sort 10 to 15 minute chunks that could be watched over and over again to grasps concepts. How I envy these students.  I envy not only the students, but also the teachers.  If I had these reviewable film chunks available when I was teaching, I could have critiqued my own segments.  And they would have provided hints as to why students were not getting parts of the material.

More than half of the Utah’s currently enrolled students are taking at least one class online.  This fall Utah will offer five new bachelor’s degrees that can be obtained solely online in business administration, psychology, economics, nursing, and social work.  The new degree programs  will require developing 84 new online courses over the next three years.  The University also expects to offer online master’s degrees in electrical and computer engineering in 2017.

In 2012, nationally 9.9 million college students took at least one course online. 3.3 million students took all classes online.

It is good to note that the University of Utah is at the forefront of this revolution.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. 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.

Goodbye SAT

April 8, 2015

“Goodbye SAT:  How online courses will change college admissions,” is an opinion piece by Kevin Carey in the March 19th Washington Post.  He makes a good case for the SAT either becoming absolute or a rather minor factor in college admissions decisions.  He cites research by economist Jesse Rothstein who found that, after controlling for student’s background characteristics, SAT scores predict only 2.7 percent of the variation in students’ college grades.

Through a nonprofit consortium called edX, Harvard, MIT, the University of Texas, the University of California at Berkeley, Columbia, Dartmouth, Cornell, Caltech, the Sorbonne and dozens of other elite universities offer complete online versions of their classes, free, to anyone with an Internet connection.  Topics include computer science, matrix algebra, poetry and Chinese History from Harvard; engineering, mathematics and jazz appreciation from UT;principles of economics and data analysis from Caltech.  edX is  not alone, there are other online education platforms such as Coursera, that offer thousands of additional courses from elite universities, free.  These can be the same courses offered in college courses, to include lectures, homework assignments, midterms and final exams.  Although the courses are free, the degrees are not, but more about that later.

Prospective students can build an impressive transcript before they formally enter college  This also provides a good opportunity to learn how much they like and how well they fit into different subjects.  Success in these Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) are much more likely to predict success in college classes than SAT scores, because they are courses in college.

Here are some outstanding examples cited in Carey’s article.  In 2012 when he was 15, living in Bator, Mongolia taking online course from MIT was one of only 340 students out of 150,000 worldwide to earn a perfect score in a rigorous online Circuits and Electronics course.  He’s currently enrolled at MIT.  Another student from the same class, Amol Bhave from Jabalpur, India, enjoyed the class so much that he created his own online follow-up course in signals and systems.  He was also admitted to the 2013 MIT freshman class.

If they are not already, colleges are likely to charge for certificates of completion as well as transcripts.  And it is likely that universities will recognize these courses in satisfying the requirements ford different degrees.  It is also likely that some residency requirement will be required by many schools.  Nevertheless, MOOCS offer welcome degrees of freedom in earning degrees.  And this definitely should have a positive impact on reducing the current ridiculous costs of degrees.

MOOCS are already ideal for autodidacts.  They are also ideal for older individuals who want to keep sharp and grow cognitively.  sYou can become an expert in a field, start on the road to fulfillment  and simply bypass formal degrees.  In my personal experience, I’ve found degrees to be an unreliable indication of a knowledgeable individual.  I remain incredulous that many people I know who have college degrees actually have college degrees.  I know of people with graduate degrees who don’t seem to be able to write coherently.  Seeing a transcript with courses and grades would be much more informative than a degree.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. 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.

We Can’t All Be Math Nerds & Science Geeks

April 4, 2015

This is the title of a Outlook piece in the March 29th edition of the Washington Post. by Fareed Zakaria.  His article excoriates our obsession with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education and argues that it will make it harder for America to innovate.  He quotes Florida governor Rick Scott’s rhetorical question “Is it vital to the state to have more anthropologists?” and supplied the governor’s answer, “I don’t think so.”  Well I would argue that many, if not most, of Florida’s problems involve people which implies the social sciences of which anthropology is one.  The failure to recognize that social science is science and that the study of the many areas of psychology provide an understanding of the many areas in which the scientific method is being applied is not generally understood  (enter “STEM” into the healthymemory blog search blog to find relevant posts).  Zakaria provides statements by Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg attesting to the importance of liberal arts in the tech world.  Although I, being a liberal arts major, strongly believes in the value of a liberal arts education, I do not agree with his conclusion that everything is hunky dory.  I think there are serious problems in the educational system and that some of them can be found in the hard sciences, engineering, and mathematics.

I am an applied cognitive psychologist who designs experiments and uses statistics.  I work intimately with hard scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.  Please understand that what I am going to write does not apply to all scientists, engineers, and mathematicians as many are brilliant scholars and read widely.  And due to their scholarship and wide reading they have covered up large holes in their formal training.  All scientists and engineers understand the data analyses of their research areas.  But there knowledge is specific to their research areas.  I view them more as technicians than as scientists.  Similarly with mathematicians.  I know mathematicians with a very deep knowledge of certain areas of mathematics, but who do not know the basics of experimental design or statistical analysis.  Zakaria extols education in critical thinking, and I strongly agree with him.  However, I have never seen a book on critical thinking that includes the general linear model (GLM).  The GLM is not some esoteric mathematical formula.  It can be understood by anyone who has had a course in high school algebra.  And it forms the basis of thinking about factors and how they interact.  It needs to be explicitly included in books and courses on critical thinking.

Moreover, I think it important that statistics be taught no later than high school.  Only students who go on to certain fields will need trigonometry or calculus, but every individual needs to have some fundamental understanding of statistics to be an effective citizens and to make informed decisions on their personal lives.  They need to understand both descriptive and inferential statistics.  I believe courses can be made simple enough so that all can have at least a rudimentary understanding of these important disciplines.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. 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.

April is Distracted-Driving Awareness Month

April 1, 2015

So said the article in the March 31st Washington Post in the article by Ashley Halsey III, “Keeping their eyes on everything but the road.”  April is appropriate as it begins with April Fools Day and anyone who drives while using a cell phone or texting is indeed a fool.  They are fools who put not only themselves, but also others at risk.  I recently read a true story about a man who drove full speed into the back of a car that was waiting for the light to change.  The man said he did not see the light because he was looking for his cell phone.  The women in the car that was hit had been recovering from traumatic brain injuries (TBIs).  This accident sent their recovery back substantially.  I hope that driver served jail time.  I also hope he was sued into bankruptcy.   First of all, he should never use his cell while driving.  However, even if you are not using a cell phone and are trying to drive safely instances will occur,involving a child for instance, that will grab your attention.  Rather than continuing to try to drive while distracted you should safely make your way to a place where you can stop safely and deal with the crisis.

There have been many healthy memory blog posts about using a cell phone while driving.  Texting while driving is even more ridiculous.  A survey from the AAA Foundation found that 58% of teenagers involved in crashes wee distracted by something.  Another survey by the Erie Insurance Company  found people admit to a lot more than texting and talking on cell phones.  15% percent confessed to engaging in a “romantic encounter” while driving.  43 % said they sing or dance (dance !!! can you believe it!).  30% said they apply makeup.  15% said they read.  9 % said they changed clothes.  4 % said they flossed or brushed their teeth. And the same percentage said they take selfies.  And 3% said that they had relieved themselves while they were behind the wheel.

Again, if these people were only endangering themselves this could be ignored and let natural selection take place.  Unfortunately, they are placing all of us at risk.  So take April and every other month seriously avoid distracted-driving and encourage others to avoid distracted driving.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2015. 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.