How Regular Exercise Benefits Your Brain

It’s fairly well known that research studies are finding that regular exercise absolutely benefits the brain, especially as we age. What we are still trying to determine is precisely how exercise helps counter the cognitive decline that comes with aging.

To find out, researchers at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health have studied a unique group of middle-aged people at higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s — 1,500 people who are cognitively normal, but have genes that put them at higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s, or have one or two parents who have been diagnosed with the disease.

The research team is trying to relate which biological processes change with exercise. In one study, these at-risk ‘middle agers’ were divided in two groups, those not physically active and those that were. All had their brains scanned to track Alzheimer’s-related brain changes including differences in how neurons metabolized glucose, since people with Alzheimer’s disease tend to break down glucose more slowly. At the end of the study period, the group that exercised more showed higher levels of glucose metabolism and performed better on cognitive-function tests compared to those who did not.

In previous work, the Wisconsin researchers identified a series of Alzheimer’s-related biological changes that seemed to be affected by exercise by comparing people who were more physically active to those who were not. In this study, they showed that intervening with an exercise regimen could actually affect these processes.

Collectively, this body of research is determining how physical activity contributes to significant changes in the biological processes in the brain that drive Alzheimer’s, and may even reduce the effect of strong risk factors such as age and genes linked to higher risk of neurodegenerative disease.

So what does this study mean to you? Brain scans of people who reported exercising at moderate intensity for at least 150 minutes a week, showed that age-related changes to the brain were significantly reduced over those who sporadically exercised or did not at all. The benefits of exercise in controlling Alzheimer’s processes was even stronger among those with genetic predisposition for the disease.

What about those that exercise even more? Studies show that people with higher aerobic fitness levels showed low amounts of white matter hyperintensities, which are signs of neuron degeneration. These show up as brighter spots on MRI images, hence the name. White matter hyperintensities tend to increase in the brain with age, and are more common in people with dementia or cognitive impairment.

So, exercise matters. A lot. This is confirmed by the National Institutes of Health. Exercise for your body’s fitness and your brain’s. It all contributes to aging gracefully and keeping your cognitive abilities going strong. If you are interested in knowing more about your brain, call INDY Neurofeedback to schedule a brain mapping.

How We Process Learning Intentionally And Unintentionally Is Very Different

Would you have trouble memorizing and repeating back ten un-related words? How easily do you absorb driving directions before using them?

Learning something intentionally is called explicit learning, such as the list of instructions and words mentioned above. However implicit learning – learning that is naturally absorbed and not intentional — is something brain researchers are very interested in learning more about.

Implicit learning is recognized as a core learning system that underlies our learning of language, music, navigating our environments, and much more. It’s been assumed that implicit learning is something we are born with, a strategy for basic, rudimentary learning. A good example is grammar. Although a six-year-old cannot explain the rules of grammar, s/he will know how to use basic grammar to communicate. The learning of language rules is an unconscious learning of abstract knowledge, even though it is absolutely learned information.

So how does this type of learning occur in our brains? And how much of a difference in this type of learning is there, from person to person?

In a new study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 64 healthy young adults were given four types of tasks that required implicit learning, including:

  • Ascertaining an artificial grammar usage and correctly applying it.
  • Predicting whether a particular group of images was going to trigger a specific outcome.
  • Guessing where a circle was going to appear on a screen based on prior sequences.
  • Classifying abstract visual stimuli into categories.

One week after these tasks, the same participants returned to complete an IQ test as well as different versions of each of their former tasks. They were tested on their working memory as well as their “explicit” learning (deliberately memorizing a list of words).

For three of the four implicit learning tasks, the researchers found a “medium” level relationship between a participant’s initial performance and how well they did a week later. This suggests stability in implicit learning ability.

The team also found that how well a participant performed at implicit learning bore no relation to their IQ or working memory results. It seemed to be driven by independent neural processes rather than those that explained explicit learning — which is linked to IQ.Their findings tended to reinforce earlier work which tied explicit and implicit learning to different brain regions and networks.

Leanne O’Neil, owner of INDY Neurofeedback, weighs in. “The hippocampus is the part of the brain responsible for explicit — but not implicit learning. Researchers have found that damage to the basal ganglia and cerebellum sections of the brain impair implicit, but not explicit, learning. Each area of our brain is responsible for different systems, functions and behavior.” 

These findings also suggest that someone might feasibly be smart, as measured by an IQ test, but not particularly adept at implicit learning – perhaps slower than someone else with a significantly lower IQ score. A good example of this is the ability to identify a barely discernible tumor in a medical scan, which would require implicit learning strength.

So, brain researchers wonder, can implicit learning brain mechanisms be trained? How might explicit learning help or hinder implicit learning?

“Our brains are incredibly diverse and complicated. It will be fascinating to learn about the results of follow-up research in this field,” says O’Neil.

If you are concerned about your recall or short-term memory, INDY Neurofeedback has drug-free, non-invasive training plans that can help you improve memory and brain function. Your first consultation is free.

Walking Backward And Brain Function

According to a fascinating recent Harvard University Psychology department study, people who walked backward, imagined they were walking backward, or watched a video simulating backward motion, had better short-term recall than those who walked forward or sat still. Finding out why is another matter entirely.

According to Harvard Psychology Professor Dr. Daniel Schacter, “It’s possible that people associate going backward with the past and this somehow triggers a memory response. We know it can’t have anything to do with how they’ve encoded the information, (as the subjects) weren’t walking backward when they stored the memories tested in this study.”

Here’s how the study worked:

  • 114 people saw a video of a staged crime, a word list, or a group of images. 
  • Participants were then asked to walk forward, walk backward, sit still, watch a video that simulated forward or backward motion, or imagine walking forward or backward.
  • Study participants then answered 20 questions related to the crime video.

Researchers found that people who walked backwards were significantly more likely to answer the 20 questions correctly immediately after walking backwards, than those who did not. This surprising result was true regardless of how old the participants were. On average, the boost in memory lasted for about 10 minutes after people stopped moving.

Improving memory recall

“Although more research needs to be made,” says Leanne O’Neil,  “the preliminary findings suggest that motion strategy might be a relatively simple technique to use to help people better recall past events.”

Psychologists know that a method called cognitive interviewing helps people recall details of a recent event by metaphorically walking a person through an event forward and backward. So it’s possible that literally walking backward may mimic something similar in the brain.

The Harvard study authors are looking at more studies to determine whether this and other motion-based memory aids can help elderly adults or people with dementia.

So, can walking backward help boost your short-term memory?

Lots of studies have shown memorizing lists, facts, or something specific such as memorizing a part in a play can be improved if the individual doing the memorization is walking while committing the details to mind. That may be one way to start working to boost memory.

Walking backward while memorizing would have to be done safely – perhaps while walking in a pool. It might be worth trying, suggests Leanne O’Neil.

If you are worried about your recall or short-term memory, INDY Neurofeedback has non-invasive tools to help you improve memory and brain function.