Too Much Screen Time Slows Brain Development in Preschoolers

The number of tablets, videos, television shows, and smart phone tools marketed toward toddlers and preschoolers has exploded over the last several years, prompting parents to ask, “How safe is screen time for very young children?”

A new study by a clinical researcher at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital (published in JAMA Pediatrics) decided to find a definitive answer. Pediatricians and clinical researchers scanned the brains of children 3 to 5 years old and found that those who watched more than the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended one hour a day (without parental involvement) had lower levels of brain development in key areas related to the development of language, literacy and cognitive skills.

This is important to note because the brain is developing the most rapidly in the first five years of life. That’s when brains are actively engaged in soaking up knowledge and forming strong connections in language, literacy and cognition. Even before screens became portable and ubiquitous, we have long known that parent-baby face to face or heart to heart engagement form the core of the social engagement system from which the child (and later adult) will function in all future relationships.

Specifically, these new studies show that excessive screen viewing is linked to the inability of children to pay attention and think clearly. There is a definite link between excessive screen time and language delay as well as a decrease in parent-child engagement. This is especially important to consider because today’s portable screens follow kids and parents everywhere – to the dinner table, in the car, during playtime with other kids, even to bed.

More troubling, very young kids are now routinely exposed to screen time. About 90% are using screens by age one, according to one study that used MRIs to research the impact of reading to children versus screen use by kids alone. In this testing, MRI results showed that children who used more than the AAP’s recommended one hour per day of screen time without parental interaction, had more disorganized, underdeveloped white matter throughout the brain.

“We know that early experiences shape brain growth, and media is one of these experiences,” says Leanne O’Neil of INDY Neurofeedback. “Heavy media use does not lead directly to brain damage, but rather, it is too passive for brain development and gets in the way of other experiences that could help children reinforce their rapidly growing brain networks.”

Here are AAP screen time guidelines for young children:

  • Babies under 18 months should not be exposed to screen media other than brief video chatting with friends and family. Babies need to interact with caregivers and their environment, so don’t use media as a babysitter.
  • By the time a youngster turns two, they can use some interactive touchscreens, as long as parents watch with them and reteach the content.
  • Children 3 to 5 years old can benefit from well-designed educational TV shows, which can improve a child’s cognitive abilities, help teach words, and positively impact social development. But just like toddlers, preschoolers learn much better from any educational materials when they are co-viewed with their caregiver, interacting about the material.

“The first years of life need to be focused on human interactions that encourage speaking, interacting socially and playing with loving caregivers,” says O’Neil. “This helps young brains develop thinking, problem-solving and other high functioning cognitive and lifelong learning skills.”

High blood pressure and brain health

Yes, high blood pressure and brain health are closely related, especially as we age. Here’s why:

Lesions in the white matter of our brains, often called hyper-intensity lesions, are damaged areas of the brain responsible for transmitting information from one part of the brain to another. Interestingly, these  brain lesions are more common with age.

In fact, ten to twenty percent of 60-year-olds have them, and they’re more present in 70, 80 and 90-year olds, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

As hyper-intensity lesions accumulate in the brain, they can lead to functional changes such as depression, problems with balance, bladder control, and dementia.  Recently, a professor at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine’s Calhoun Cardiology Center found that lowering blood pressure may be the key to preventing these lesions. Subjects in the school’s study found that those with lower blood pressure developed 40 percent fewer white matter hyper-intensity lesions than those with higher blood pressure.

In a related study (Circulation journal), adults age 75 and older with hypertension (high blood pressure) who were able to lower their systolic blood pressure to 130 (with or without medication) developed fewer brain lesions than those who lowered their blood pressure to 145.

In addition to brain benefits, the study also found that the group with lower blood pressure had fewer cardiovascular events, including arrhythmias, heart failure and heart attacks.

Some physicians use age as “an excuse” to let higher blood pressure numbers slide. However, in 2017 the American Heart Association (AHA) revised their guidelines and set the generally approved threshold for high systolic blood pressure at 130 for all adults, regardless of age.

Even so, as much as 46 percent of American adults have high blood pressure under the new AHA guidelines.

“That’s a huge percentage,” cautions Leanne O’Neil, owner of INDY Neurofeedback. “My recommendation for brain health is to regularly have your blood pressure checked. Monitor your numbers, and do what you can to keep those numbers moving down, especially if you are overweight or over age 60. Not only will getting more exercise help, but you can also keep your blood pressure trending lower by eating fewer sugars, starches, fatty meats, and sodas, and adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet.” 

Diet soda + 10 years = increased risk of dementia & stroke 

diet soda popDiet soda + 10 years = increased risk of dementia & stroke 

Recently, a large study tracking stroke and dementia risk in diet soda drinkers caught our attention at INDY Neurofeedback.

The health hazards of sugary beverages like regular soda have been known since 2015. But a more recent study shows that the sugar-free soda version is not any healthier. 

Artificially flavored drinks like diet soda seem to be linked to a higher risk of stroke and dementia, according to a new study published in an American Heart Association journal.

This ten year study included one group of 2,888 adults age 45 and older, and a second group with 1,484 adults over age 60. Researchers studied the over-45 group for stroke risk (rare before age 45) and the over-60 group for dementia (rare before age 60).  

Researchers analyzed the number of artificially flavored drinks each person consumed. They then checked the group’s health over the next 10 years and found:

  • Those who drank at least one diet soda per day were about three-times more likely to experience an ischemic stroke (blockage of blood vessels to brain tissue), compared with those who avoided the beverages. 
  • Just one daily diet soda was linked to higher rates of dementia as well, although other risk factors like obesity or diabetes also could be to blame.
  • Researchers note that it isn’t proven that diet sodas caused these conditions. But it is true that those who developed stroke or dementia had consumed more soda than those who had not. (Other factors, such as obesity – also tied to diet soda drinking – could also be a factor).

More research is needed to determine exactly how—or how much—artificially sweetened beverages affect your vascular system, the network of vessels that carries blood to your brain. 

“What we do know,” says Leanne O’Neil of INDY Neurofeedback, “is that when vessels harden or develop sticky plaque build-up, it raises your risk of chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes, as well as dementia and stroke.”

“So the best thing you can do for your brain health is to maintain a healthy lifestyle to help protect against these illnesses. What’s good for your health and heart is generally also good for your brain.” 

Learn to Quiet Your Brain — and Live Longer

Those of us at INDY Neurofeedback were fascinated with a new study recently published in the medical journal Nature, which linked quieter brains with longevity. We were fascinated because it confirmed what we have been seeing in our neurofeedback clinic for years.

It makes sense that a less active or calmer brain would use less body energy. That’s the theory behind activities such as mindfulness and meditation – which have been around for thousands of years. It also supports the HeartMath HRV (heart rate variability) program all clients are taught in conjunction with our neurofeedback training. 

In the Nature study, researchers from Harvard Medical School reported that a calm brain with less neural activity could lead to a longer life. 

Here’s what the Harvard study showed:

  • The study analyzed donated brain tissue from people who died (aged from 60 to over 100). 
  • A protein that suppresses neural activity — called REST — was found to be associated with neural activity and mortality.
  • Researchers noticed that the longest-lived people had lower levels of REST as well as genes related to neural activity.
  • The study showed that daily periods of slowed activity spent in meditation, uni-tasking, being in quiet environments, or sleeping, were just as important for life-long brain health and longevity as more well-known maxims such as staying active, maintaining a healthy weight, and exercise. 

“Even though our brains weigh only about one-seventieth of our total weight, brains consume nearly one third of all the energy in our body,” explains Leanne O’Neil, owner of INDY Neurofeedback. “So it is incredibly important that we learn how to quiet our brains to give them a chance to rest – especially when all around us, we’re encouraged to multi-task and stay engaged.”

“Learning how to quiet our overly-busy, multi-tasking brains is vital for our mental health. And now, we know it is also connected to longevity.”

Here is what INDY Neurofeedback tells our clients:

  • Begin to tune into and listen to your body. Find out where you are holding in tension, and acknowledge those areas. When you acknowledge your body, you are more open to what is really going on for you.
  • Learn to recognize when you are feeling overwhelmed.
  • Practice mindfulness and deep breathing.
  • Try regular meditating. It’s a good way to stay tuned to your internal mental state.
  • Learn to stop reacting and talking, and be present. Really listen to what others are communicating.
  • Be brutally honest with yourself about having clear boundaries. Know when you need to take a break from work, children, problem-solving, or being with others. 
  • Spend time alone, doing what you enjoy.

Those of us here at INDY Neurofeedback have noticed that by incorporating both HRV and neurofeedback techniques, individuals can learn to gain control over various over or under active parts of our brains, providing the tools for healthier more optimal brain function.

Slow Walking, Slow Mind?

What is the pace of your usual walk? Brisk and peppy, or slow-paced? Turns out that the gait of your walk provides reams of information to onlookers and health practitioners about your age – and brain health.

Physicians have long used walking speed as a marker for cognitive capacity in older people, since gait is linked to the central nervous system. But perhaps more interestingly, you don’t have to be a senior for walking pace to play a significant part in your overall health. 

New research suggests that even people in their 40s who walk slowly are more likely to have slower functioning brains. 

A new Duke University study is the first to suggest that the gait health analysis might work for younger people as well as seniors, reports BBC.com. The data comes from a long-term study that followed approximately 900 New Zealanders from their birth in the 1970s to their 45th birthdays. The study tested participant walking speed and examined their physical health in addition to brain function.

Significantly, the slower walkers tended to display signs of accelerated aging – specifically in their lungs, teeth, and immune systems, as the researchers had expected. But surprisingly, MRI scans of the slow walkers’ brains looked notably older than the brains of the regular paced walkers. 

Adding insult in injury, strangers who were asked to assess the age of the participants from photos of their faces said the slow walkers even looked older.

Researchers from Duke University conclude that these results suggest that, “A slow walk is a warning sign of brain decline decades before old age sets in.”

What does your brain convey about your overall health? From patterns of forgetfulness to repetitive thoughts, anxiety to inability to sleep, your brain’s optimum functioning is the key to your health – no matter what your age.

If there is something about your brain health you’d like to discuss with us, come talk with us. Our consultations are free and always confidential.

Protect Your Brain by Lowering Your BMI

Losing a few pounds may help you stay sharp, according to a recent U.S. study published in the journal Neurology

The University of Miami Miller School of Medicine study looked at just under 1,300 adults, checking weight, BMI (body mass index), inflammation, and dementia. 

The lead study author found that having a higher BMI and waist circumference was associated with having a thinner cortex, which has been known to result in worse cognition later in life. BMI is a useful measure of calculating obesity levels. Using your height and weight, your BMI is an estimate of body fat and a good gauge of your risk for diseases that tend to occur with more body fat. 

In general, the higher your BMI, the higher your risk for certain diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, gallstones, breathing problems, and certain cancers. We can now add the tendency toward dementia to that list.

Researchers suspect that chronic inflammation caused by obesity may play a role in brain cortex thinning. If so, this discovery provides yet another reason to maintain a healthy weight.

“Dementia is a growing problem in the U.S. and European countries, and as of yet, there are no curative therapies,” says Leanne O’Neil, owner of INDY Neurofeedback. “So focusing on risk factors that can be modified, such as being overweight, is a proactive way to help.” 

At INDY Neurofeedback, we help our clients achieve and maintain good brain health. Eating right, exercising daily, getting proper sleep, and sustaining a healthy weight are things you can start now to help your brain health for years to come.

Your Dog Can Understand Word Meaning, Not Just Intonation

Thanks to behavioral science and the fMRI, we now know that dogs are able to understand the actual words their owners use — not just voice intonation, as previously thought.

Until a recent study was published in Science magazine, most dog owners thought that no matter what words they used, they could convince their dog that it was being praised if they used an affectionate tone. But this new canine brain study indicates that dog owners have likely been underestimating their dogs’ comprehension skills. 

The dog brain study from Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest revealed that dogs do not rely exclusively on tone when they listen to human speech. Many dogs are able to recognize the meaning of frequently used words.

Behavioral scientists used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to examine patterns of brain activity in 13 specially trained dogs as they listened to their trainer speaking either words of praise or neutral words. 

The two types of commonly used Hungarian phrases were selected. Importantly, the dogs heard the two common phrases delivered in both a praising and neutral tone on multiple occasions. According to the study, “This was absolutely critical for disentangling any distinct effects that word content and intonation might have on the canine brain. Indeed, the setup led to several interesting discoveries, including fascinating similarities in the ways speech is processed in the dog and human brain.”

fMRI scans revealed that words of praise triggered particularly strong activations in the dogs’ left hemispheres. It did not matter whether they were delivered as praise or in an entirely neutral tone. Researchers believe that dog brains are capable of extracting the arbitrary symbolic content that humans assign to words, and have learned their special significance.

Researchers also found that reading intonation in human speech was found in the opposite hemisphere, the right side of the dog’s brain – just as it is in human brains. Right-side brain regions, which normally process auditory information, responded to neutral and praising tones of delivery with different levels of activation regardless of actual word content.

“This anatomical contrast of word meaning and intonation in the canine brain is strikingly similar to what we know about the brains of humans,” remarked Leanne O’Neil of INDY Neurofeedback. “We’ve known since the turn of the 19th century that humans with damage to part of the left hemisphere could be fluent in speech but lack comprehension. They also had difficulty understanding the meaning of others’ speech. More recently, researchers have discovered that those with certain types of right hemisphere damage can understand the meaning of words, but struggle to interpret people’s emotional states — or humor — which are usually expressed by tone. So it’s interesting to discover that the two hemispheres of dog brains appear to be similarly specialized for interpreting communications.” 

It turns out that dogs use tone to assess the possibility of hearing some rewarding content, but integrate both sources of information to ultimately decide whether they are indeed being praised. This effect doesn’t seem to be too different from what happens in the human brain when we assess whether or not something we are taking in is pleasant. We do this for example, when we evaluate how much we like a particular piece of music.

The similarities between how canine and human brains interpret speech by integrating word meaning and intonation probably dates back to the dawn of canine domestication. 

In the process of selecting dogs with characteristics that made them better companions for us, we inevitably also selected for brains that process communications in a similar way to ours. 

After all, similarly tuned brains are probably better suited for connecting with each other. Another reason dogs are our best friends.

Is Your Child’s Behavior Typical for his/her Age?

With school back in session, parent-teacher conferences are right around the corner. For parents of a very active elementary school child, the issue of ADHD (Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) may come up. If so, what questions should you be asking?

  • The first thing to appreciate is that every child is unique, so no single listing of ADHD symptoms fits every child.
  • It’s also important to know that elementary age boys get tagged with “suspected ADHD” more than twice as many times as girls do.
  • Not every child that seems to fit into the ADHD category will be clinically diagnosed by a physician as having the condition.
  • Most importantly, according to Leanne O’Neil of INDY Neurofeedback, is that close to 90% of suspected ADHD labels seen in her clinic are given to children who actually have sustained an undiagnosed closed head injury (life’s head bumps) that resulted in brainwave dysregulation.

It is vital that parents work to ascertain what actually is going on with their child. That takes time and that also takes good diagnostic testing of the brain.

ADHD has four primary symptoms: 

  • Hyperactivity
  • Impulsivity
  • Inattention
  • Distractibility

Long term symptoms of a closed head injury can look eerily similar to ADHD, including:

  • Hyperactivity and impulsivity
  • Mood swings and irritability
  • Inattention or inability to concentrate
  • Distractibility

A ‘closed head’ injury, such as a concussion or jarring blow to the head may not have been understood at the time of the injury as being enough of a blow to sustain minor brain trauma/brainwave dysregulation. That can be particularly true in young children who don’t have the ability to articulate how they feel after trauma such as a fall from a tree or jungle gym, trampoline, soccer or football head injury, or even a head injury from rough play or a “fender bender” car accident.

Whether or not your child will be clinically diagnosed with ADHD by a medical professional, the behavior your child’s teacher has noticed is going to be counter-productive to the class as a whole, and absolutely should be addressed at school as well as at home. So where do you begin?

“A great place to begin is right there with the teacher,” says Leanne O’Neil, owner of INDY Neurofeedback. “Learn as much as possible about the behaviors and circumstances your child’s teacher is noticing. Ask questions and take notes. See if what your child’s teacher has observed is consistent with your own observations about your child.”

“In the meantime, no labels. Kids can get a lot of negative feedback from teachers, siblings, coaches, and other kids as a result of being labeled with ADHD. That can be really stressful and take a toll on their self-esteem. That in turn can provide the foundation for acting out more, which can lead to disciplinary problems.”

INDY Neurofeedback offers a brainwave test as well as neurofeedback to help overcome many of the symptoms associated with brainwave dysregulation.

According to Leanne O’Neil, “The brainwave test identifies unbalanced brainwave patterns that may be related to focus and attention issues while the neurofeedback is designed to teach individuals how to better regulate their brainwave patterns.  We find that when a person learns how to do this, many of the issues improve – they become calmer, more focused and better able to concentrate.”

We will work with you and your child’s physician to lead to dramatic improvement in your child’s schoolwork and behavior in and out of school. Even better, your child may not need  ADHD medications.

Let’s work together to help your child begin to turn things around early in the school year — positively and proactively.

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.

What You Eat (and when) Dramatically Affects Your Brain Health

It may seem obvious to state that our brains need proper fuel to function effectively. We prove this to ourselves when we miss breakfast and find it hard to think clearly until we ingest some protein.

Protein is absorbed by our bodies and used by our brains, among other things, to make neurotransmitters, the chemicals released by our brain cells to communicate with each other. We make new neurotransmitters all the time so that we can pay attention, learn new skills, remember details, control our emotional reactions, and regulate mood.

At INDY Neurofeedback, we know that a well-balanced diet for our bodies will also significantly aid cognitive function and brain health.

Here’s how you can eat right for your brain:

When your stomach is empty, so is your brain. Starting off the day without eating protein sets the stage for impaired attention and concentration.

20 grams of protein must be consumed by lunch for effective brain function — with at least 10 grams ingested first thing in the morning.

A protein shake, a hard-boiled egg, Greek yogurt, bacon and cheese omelet, or organic peanut butter on whole wheat toast, all qualify.

If you eat a breakfast with no fat, little protein and a high glycemic index – such as sweetened cereal and milk or a bagel with fat free cream cheese — your blood sugar will skyrocket and you’ll get an energy boost. But – all too soon, your blood sugar level will crash, which triggers the release of stress hormones like adrenaline, that leave you feeling jittery, moody, and having difficulty concentrating.

When this is your child’s breakfast, no amount of medication, parenting, school intervention, or counseling will correct an attention problem that is caused by this nutritional deficiency. In a school classroom, this looks like ADHD to the teacher.

Proper nutrition is key to brain health as well as your family’s brain health. That’s why, at INDY Neurofeedback, we stress that healthy diets provide the building blocks for the brain to create and maintain neural connections.

Fad diets that dramatically reduce good and bad fats and carbs can actually be harmful to your brain! The best way to diet is to eat a balanced diet rather than completely cutting out (or dramatically reducing) important fats and carbs that your brain craves to function optimally.

Your brain needs lots of water to function effectively, too. Those eight, 8-ounce glasses of water you should consume daily help your brain think clearly every bit as much as it helps your digestion, circulation, elimination, and muscle health.

“Eat and drink wisely, for the sake of your entire body’s wellbeing,” says Leanne O’Neil of INDY Neurofeedback. “Eating healthily is as important to your brain’s effective performance as it is for your body’s. Make sure your diet is balanced with weekly servings of fish (the Omega-3 in fish is especially good for your brain health) and daily servings of brightly or darkly colored fruits and leafy vegetables.”