Kerry Maberly

Selection of Top Research Articles: Neuroplasticity, Neurogenesis, Brain Fitness Fundamentals

In Uncategorized on June 14, 2011 at 5:21 pm


Ackerman, P. L., Kanfer, R., & Calderwood, C. (2010). Use it or lose it? wii brain exercise practice and reading for domain knowledge. Psychology and Aging, 25(4), 753-766.

Lövdén, M., Bäckman, L., Lindenberger, U., Schaefer, S., & Schmiedek, F. (2010). A theoretical framework for the study of adult cognitive plasticity. Psychological Bulletin, 136(4), 659-676.

Tucker-Drob, E. M., Johnson, K. E., & Jones, R. N. (2009). The cognitive reserve hypothesis: A longitudinal examination of age-associated declines in reasoning and processing speed. Developmental Psychology, 45(2), 431-446.

Fedorova, I., Hussein, N., Baumann, M. H., Di Martino, C., & Salem, N. (2009). An n-3 fatty acid deficiency impairs rat spatial learning in the barnes maze. Behavioral Neuroscience, 123(1), 196-205.

Buschkuehl, M., Jaeggi, S. M., Hutchison, S., Perrig-Chiello, P., Däpp, C., Müller, M., . . . . (2008). Impact of working memory training on memory performance in old-old adults. Psychology and Aging, 23(4), 743-753.

Green, C. S., & Bavelier, D. (2008). Exercising your brain: A review of human brain plasticity and training-induced learning. Psychology and Aging, 23(4), 692-701.

Bialystok, E., & DePape, A. (2009). Musical expertise, bilingualism, and executive functioning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 35(2), 565-574.

Mayr, U. (2008). Introduction to the special section on cognitive plasticity in the aging mind. Psychology and Aging, 23(4), 681-683.

Jessberger, S., & Gage, F. H. (2008). Stem-cell-associated structural and functional plasticity in the aging hippocampus. Psychology and Aging, 23(4), 684-691.

Dahlin, E., Nyberg, L., Bäckman, L., & Neely, A. S. (2008). Plasticity of executive functioning in young and older adults: Immediate training gains, transfer, and long-term maintenance. Psychology and Aging, 23(4), 720-730.

Li, S., Schmiedek, F., Huxhold, O., Röcke, C., Smith, J., & Lindenberger, U. (2008). Working memory plasticity in old age: Practice gain, transfer, and maintenance. Psychology and Aging, 23(4), 731-742.

Mercado, E. (2008). Neural and cognitive plasticity: From maps to minds. Psychological Bulletin, 134(1), 109-137.

Greenwood, P. M. (2007). Reply to grady (2007), raz (2007), and salthouse (2007): Can age and treachery triumph over youth and skill? Neuropsychology, 21(6), 680-683.

Salthouse, T. A. (2007). Comment on greenwood (2007): Functional plasticity in cognitive aging. Neuropsychology, 21(6), 678-679.

Raz, N. (2007). Comment on greenwood (2007): Which side of plasticity? Neuropsychology, 21(6), 676-677.

Grady, C. L. (2007). Comment on greenwood (2007): Solving the puzzle of structure/function relations in the aging brain? Neuropsychology, 21(6), 674-675.

Greenwood, P. M. (2007). Functional plasticity in cognitive aging: Review and hypothesis. Neuropsychology, 21(6), 657-673.

Van der Borght, K., Havekes, R., Bos, T., Eggen, B. J. L., & Van der Zee,Eddy A. (2007). Exercise improves memory acquisition and retrieval in the Y-maze task: Relationship with hippocampal neurogenesis. Behavioral Neuroscience, 121(2), 324-334.

Taub, E. (2004). Harnessing brain plasticity through behavioral techniques to produce new treatments in neurorehabilitation. American Psychologist.Special Issue: Awards Issue 2004, 59(8), 692-704.

Lesk, V. E., & Womble, S. P. (2004). Caffeine, priming, and tip of the tongue: Evidence for plasticity in the phonological system. Behavioral Neuroscience, 118(3), 453-461.

Fernández-Ballesteros, R., Zamarrón, M. D., Tárraga, L., Moya, R., & Iñiguez, J. (2003). Cognitive plasticity in healthy, mild cognitive impairment (MCI) subjects and alzheimer’s disease patients: A research project in spain. European Psychologist.Special Issue: Psychology of Aging in Europe, 8(3), 148-159.

Kolb, B. (2003). The impact of the hebbian learning rule on research in behavioural neuroscience. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie Canadienne, 44(1), 14-16.

Award for distinguished scientific contributions: Michael M. merzenich. (2001). American Psychologist, 56(11), 878-881.

Robertson, I. H., & Murre, J. M. J. (1999). Rehabilitation of brain damage: Brain plasticity and principles of guided recovery. Psychological Bulletin, 125(5), 544-575.

Johnson, M. H. (1999). Ontogenetic constraints on neural and behavioral plasticity: Evidence from imprinting and face processing. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology/Revue Canadienne De Psychologie Expérimentale, 53(1), 77-91.

Kolb, B. (1999). Synaptic plasticity and the organization of behaviour after early and late brain injury. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology/Revue Canadienne De Psychologie Expérimentale, 53(1), 62-76.

Foehring, R. C., & Lorenzon, N. M. (1999). Neuromodulation, development and synaptic plasticity. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology/Revue Canadienne De Psychologie Expérimentale, 53(1), 45-61.

Kesslak, J. P., So, V., Choi, J., Cotman, C. W., & Gomez-Pinilla, F. (1998). Learning upregulates brain-derived neurotrophic factor messenger ribonucleic acid: A mechanism to facilitate encoding and circuit maintenance? Behavioral Neuroscience, 112(4), 1012-1019.


Brain Training & Brain Fitness 101: What is the science behind it?

In Brain Fitness on June 11, 2010 at 11:20 am

The concepts of brain fitness and brain training have really only surfaced in the public awareness over about the last 5 years – much of this attributable to Nintendo’s Brain Training computer game.  What Nintendo has clearly shown is that there is an appetite for improving our minds and products that enable us to do this.  The concept of improving our brains is real and we can make a difference, so what’s the science behind it?

Let’s begin with  some key terms that you may want to know… If you are familiar with the basics of the brain, please skip ahead to ***.

Brain Basics

Neurons are the cells in your brain that communicate with each other and control what you do, think and feel.
Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that neurons release in order to communicate with other brain cells.  Without neurotransmitters there is no communication.
Axons are the part of a brain cell that carry information away from it and onto other cells.
Dendrites are the receiving end of brain cells.  They accept the neurotransmitter and then turn it into an electrical signal.
The synapse is the gap between the axons of a neuron and the dendrites of a connected neuron.  It is within the space or gap that neurotransmitters pass.
The myelin sheath is the coating on the outside of axons.
Glial cells are like support cells that feed the neurons – they bring nutrition to the neurons and take waste away.  Interestingly when Einstein’s brain was examined after his passing, he was found to have a “normal” number of neurons but a larger amount of glial cells than was expected.
The blood-brain barrier is a tight mesh of cells outside of the brain that protects most nasties from getting in.  It allows water, glucose and oxygen to get in and allows CO2 to get out but it is very selective is what else it permits to access the brain.


Brain Fitness Basics

1. Neuroplasticity

Professor Michael Merzenich, Neuroscientist & Neuroplastician believes that  “radical improvements in cognitive functioning – how we learn, think, perceive and remember  – are possible even in the elderly.”  Baroness Susan Greenfield, a Neuroscientist at Oxford University, concludes that there is now good scientific evidence to show that exercising the brain can slow, delay and protect against age-related decline.   What allows these improvements and potentially protects your brain from decline is neuroplasticity –  your brain’s ability to change at all ages. Providing yourself with a stimulating environment can help reduce decline because the neurons are stimulated and repetition strengthens the connections between cells.  Dr Marion Diamond, and the scientist chosen to study the brain of Einstein, believes that a healthy older brain can function virtually as well as a healthy young brain, when supported by ongoing mental activity and a healthy lifestyle.

2. Neurogenesis

Research has shown that contrary to popular belief, the brain is constantly undergoing neurogenesis – the growth and development of new neurons or brain cells.  As you age a number of your brain cells die off, however it is possible to grow new brain cells at a greater rate than the rate of decline.  Learning, targeted mental and physical exercise promote neurogenesis – just as lifting weights promotes muscle growth.   If we are mentally and physically engaged, the rate at which we grow cells exceeds the rate of decline.  Labelled neurogenesis, this highly significant finding overturns a long-standing belief that the brain cells you are born with are the ones you have for life and that mental decline was inevitable.  We now know that by exerting and ‘working’ your brains you can facilitate and excite this new growth. Interestingly, physical exercise is being identified as one of the most important things that you can do for your brain in promoting the creation of new brain cells – Dr Elkhonon Goldberg, Clinical Professor of Neurology at New York University School of Medicine; Dr John Ratey,  Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Dr John Medina, Affiliate Professor at The University of Washington and Seattle Pacific University.

3. Neuroprotection & Brain Reserve

Like millions of intertwining spider webs, dendrites and axons create a density in your brain, a concept known as ‘neural reserve.’

It is proprosed that a brain that has a larger number of neural connections, a larger neural reserve, is less likely to develop degenerative brain diseases, such as Alzheimers.  In the concept of neural reserve, the size of the network of connections between brain cells matters–and more is definitely better.  Researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia found people “who don’t engage in complex mental activity during their lifetime have twice the shrinkage [fewer connections] in a key part of the brain once they hit old age…”  In contrast, our cognitive connections can proliferate as a result of our individual experiences, what we have learned, and how much we challenge and stimulate ourselves.

According to Dr Yaakov Stern, Division Leader of the Cognitive Neuroscience Division of the Sergievsky Centre and Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology, College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University, New York, stimulation consists of engaging in activities.  ‘In our research almost all activities are seen to contribute to reserve…no matter ones’ age, education and occupation, our level of participation in leisure activities has a significant and cumulative effect…different activities have independent, synergistic, contributions, which means the more things you do and the earlier you start, the better.  But you are never stuck: better late than never.

The fundamental lesson to be taken from current research in the area of brain fitness is not only understanding the ‘use it or lose it principle’ but living it and putting it into practice is as many varied ways as possible – physically, mentally and socially.

Brain Fitness: The fundamental 5

In Brain Fitness on January 20, 2010 at 4:04 pm

Hi there and welcome.  My name is Kerry Maberly, Ph.D and I would like to introduce you to the latest information, strategies and products designed to develop brain fitness and help you to protect your brain.  It is a common aspiration to  to keep your memory sharp, retain that feeling of quick thinking and slow the rate of any possible mental decline.  The fields of cognitive neuroscience and psychology particularly, are helping to unlock the principles that will allow us to do this now and into the future.  They are beginning to understand more about the relationship between the structure of the brain and its functions, as well as what behaviours contribute to positive and protective changes in the brain.  We’re not even close to having all of the answers but what exists is interesting and amazing and worth finding out about.  I hope you enjoy!

A number of accomplished researchers and well-respected practitioners have shown that there are 5 key principles that are important to helping you to look after your brain, to build brain reserve and reduce the likelihood of developing Alzheimers.  Such scholars include…

The five fundamentals of brain fitness include…

  1. Physical Exercise
  2. Mental Stimulation
  3. Social Interaction
  4. Nutrition
  5. Stress [reduction]

Brain Fitness Brain Training1. Physical Exercise. Associate Professor John Ratey has written a fantastic book called Spark: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain.  In it he outlines the importance of not only cardiovascular exercise [eg walking, running, cycling, swimming] but also weight-bearing exercises [eg. weight training].  Some of the key reasons that exercise is so powerful in protecting the brain is that it encourages the proliferation of growth factors [chemicals in the brain] which  encourage the growth of new brain cells, but also improve attention and readiness to learn.

2. Mental Exercise. Research by Dr Michael Vanzuela concluded that ‘people with high brain reserve [those that had a rich history of diverse and complex mentBrain Training Brain Fitnessal activity] are 46% less likely to develop dementia.1 It is also important to recognise that physical exercise and mental exercise are not separate activities, but rather interrelated.  Research is supporting the old adage ‘use it or lose it’ but it is also instructing us that if you use your mind and engage in novel and mentally challenging activities after exercise, this gives the new brain cells something to do.  Although quite a few of the new brain cells will die off in any case, mental stimulation particularly after exercise helps the new brain cells be integrated into the brain’s network.  In fact, Dr Vanzuela recommends activities such as dancing and martial arts as they integrate physical and mental exercise.

Now in terms of tools that support challenging mental exercise, there are a variety  currently available, however very few of these have been scientifically evaluated.  This doesn’t mean they want contribute to improving your brain but rather that its effectiveness hasn’t been evaluated.  Posit Science, a firm started by Dr Michael Merzenich has created a number of products that have been shown to improve speed of processing, memory and even simply being able to follow conversations more easily.  My favourite is The Brain Fitness Program which provides a range of fun computer based exercises to complete.  In order to decide what mental exercises are best to participate in use the following list of ideal characteristics identified by Dr Michael Merzenich…

a). is it novel/new/surprising?

b). is it challenging?

c). are there levels / can you progress?

c). is it rewarding?

Interestingly when the activity is rewarding, memory and learning improve because of the release of certain chemicals within the brain.  So, the ultimate key is – do something that you enjoy and would feel proud of that you are mastering.

3. Social Interaction.  From psychology in general we have learnt the importance of social support in terms of helping people to cope with stress and have a more positive experience in life.  However research is now extending its importance to physically affecting the health of your brain.  If you could do with a bit more positive social interaction in your life [who couldn’t!] you may find online groups such as yahoo groups, ning or useful in connecting with others.  Alternatively look for opportunities to engage in meaningful interactions with others.  As a friend of mine shared with me once, go out there and add some stories to your life!

Friendship for Brain Health

4. Nutrition.  No surprise that this one made it onto the list but as in many topics nutrition is a contentious field.  The basic rule is to eat as cleanly as possible [organic if you can] because some of the the pesticides and chemicals used in growing foods can act as neurotoxins and damage brain cells.  The next guiding principle is to stay hydrated.  With our brains being more than 75% watNutritioner even a slight drop in water levels can adversely affect concentration and mental performance.  The third key principle is to ensure you are getting an adequate supply of omega 3 oils.   I personally use Udo’s oil which is a blend of omega 3,6 & 9 oils, however according to Dr Mercola, a widely respected health practitioner,  krill oil is considered an excellent source of omega 3 essential fatty acids.  If you would like to find out more, the book that I  recommend is The Brain Wash.  If you are interested in a more general nutrition book I highly recommend John Robbins’, Diet for a new America.

When it comes to supplements this is where it gets particularly tricky. The Brain Sciences Institute at Swinburne University in Melbourne  and the Brain, Performance and Nutrition research centre at Northumbria University are conducting extensive research into natural supplements and their impact on the brain. Some of the supplements under examination include Ginkgo biloba, Bacopa, DHA, St John’s Wort, Vinpocetine, Acetyl-L-Carnitine, Huperzine A, omega 3 and anti-oxidants (Pycnogenol and Ropren). We’ll look at some of these in more detail in future posts.  In the meantime if you have a look at the Northumbria research centre page, they have a great rotating banner which briefly summarises the current conclusions around a number of natural products.

5. Stress [reduction].  I think it is common knowledge that too much stress is bad for us, but it is useful to understand why that is so.  When you are feeling stressed the brain releases [amongst other chemicReduce stress, reduce cortisol, brain fitnessals] a hormone called cortisol.  This hormone is particularly long lasting and stays in the brain for sometime after it is useful.  According to Dr Dharma Singh Kalsa and Dr Medina, one of the key difficulties is that the hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with our memory, has lots of receptors available for cortisol.  That means that when you get overly stressed or experience stress for extended periods, the hippocampus is bathed in cortisol more often or longer and this creates memory problems as well as concentration and learning difficulties.  You may even have experienced this yourself that when you are feeling stressed you have difficulty remembering things.  There are of course a number of strategies you can use to reduce stress and cortisol levels and these include exercise, deep muscle relaxation and breathing and practices such as yoga and meditation.

These five principles form the pillars of positive brain health and provide you with a number of ways you can influence how your brain ages and how you can look after yourself.  Apparently, 100 is the new 60 and adopting these principles will help you to enjoy life as you age in a more fully functioning way.