Targeted brain training may help you multitask better

The area of the brain involved in multitasking and ways to train it have been identified by a research team at the IUGM Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal and the University of Montreal. The research includes a model to better predict the effectiveness of this training. Cooking while having a conversation, watching a movie while browsing the Web, or driving while listening to a radio show – multitasking is an essential skill in our daily lives. Unfortunately, it decreases with age, which makes it harder for seniors to keep up, causes them stress, and decreases their confidence. Many commercial software applications promise to improve this ability through exercises. But are these exercises truly effective, and how do they work on the brain? The team addresses these issues in two papers published in AGE and PLOS ONE.


Targeted Action for a Specific Result

The findings are important because they may help scientists develop better targeted cognitive stimulation programs or improve existing training programs. Specialists sometimes question the usefulness of exercises that may be ineffective simply because they are poorly structured. “To improve your cardiovascular fitness, most people know you need to run laps on the track and not work on your flexibility. But the way targeted training correlates to cognition has been a mystery for a long time. Our work shows that there is also an association between the type of cognitive training performed and the resulting effect. This is true for healthy seniors who want to improve their attention or memory and is particularly important for patients who suffer from damage in specific areas of the brain. We therefore need to better understand the ways to activate certain areas of the brain and target this action to get specific results,” explained Sylvie Belleville, who led the research.

Researchers are now better able to map these effects on the functioning of very specific areas of the brain. Will we eventually be able to adapt the structure of our brains through highly targeted training? “We have a long road ahead to get to that point, and we don’t know for sure if that would indeed be a desirable outcome. However, our research findings can be used right away to improve the daily lives of aging adults as well as people who suffer from brain damage,” Dr. Belleville said.

The Right Combination of Plasticity and Attentional Control

In one of the studies, 48 seniors were randomly allocated to training that either worked on plasticity and attentional control or only involved simple practice. The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to evaluate the impact of this training on various types of attentional tasks and on brain function. The team showed that training on plasticity and attentional control helped the participants develop their ability to multitask. However, performing two tasks simultaneously was not what improved this skill. For the exercises, the research participants instead had to modulate the amount of attention given to each task. They were first asked to devote 80% of their attention to task A and 20% to task B and then change the ratio to 50:50 or 20:80. This training was the only type that increased functioning in the middle prefrontal region, or the area known to be responsible for multitasking abilities and whose activation decreases with age. The researchers used this data to create a predictive model of the effects of cognitive training on the brain based on the subjects’ characteristics.

Ages according to me:
  • Kid:Hell yeah, best ever!!!
  • Teens:Awkwarddd.
  • 20s:Immature adults.
  • 30s:Hopefully more mature adults?
  • 40s:Old. Sorry.
  • 50s:A bit older.
  • 60s:Sufficiently old.
  • 70s:Stop with the old.
  • 80s:Congrats, you're not dead yet!
  • 90s:Wow. Just wow.
  • 100s:Old as balls.
  • 110s:Probably dead by now.
  • 120s:Most assuredly dead.
  • 130s:Um...
  • 1000s+:Time Lord.

Sixty Then and Now ~

Ellen Corby was 60 when she first appeared as Grandma Esther in the 1971 pilot of “The Waltons.”   62-yr-old Kirstie Alley probably won’t be confused with anyone’s grandmother. 

Frances Bavier was 58 when she starred on “The Andy Griffith Show” as the Aunt Bee.  Supermodel Christie Brinkley still stuns at 59.

Certainly it helps if you’re drop-dead gorgeous to begin with.  And, of course, when money is no object, pla$tic $urgery can do wonders (if you’re not Joan Rivers).

While I think it’s great that women are staying active & taking better care of themselves than ever before, I also think it’s a sad social commentary if it’s motivated by fear of aging to the point of denial.  Entering the special freedoms and hard-won wisdom of the Crone years is a life-passage that should be celebrated, not dreaded!  If only our youth-fetish culture would realize that what truly matters is youthfulness of the heart & spirit — NOT the shallowness of physical appearances.

Accelerated aging and organ damage with chronic alcohol abuse

The chemical we call “alcohol" is actually ethanol - one of many chemicals that are alcohols (which is any compound with a hydroxyl functional group).

It’s also one of the most ancient intoxicants; the fermentation of beer predates the domestication of horses (~6000 years ago vs. 5500 years ago), though the first recorded recipe (and definitive proof of intentional brewing) was not until 3900 BCE, in ancient Sumeria.

This illustration shows the accelerated aging, ulceration of the stomach, and cirrhosis of the liver in a man who has abused alcohol since he was a teenager. While the body has defenses against acute alcohol toxicity, such as vomiting the irritating alcohol from the stomach (as well as the negative mental associations we make with hangovers, of course), it does not have the same defenses against chronic excessive alcohol consumption. As one develops a tolerance for alcohol, and drinks more frequently, the brain becomes dependent upon it.

Alcohol is one of the few drugs that is absorbed directly through the stomach, for the most part. This can cause significant ulceration and scleroses (hardening) with chronic abuse. As the liver is where the alcohol and its by-products are processed, consistent abuse of the substance can cause significant organ damage.

Die Frau als Hausärztin
. Dr. Anna Fitcher-Duckelmann, 1911.

Music to your ears?

Many people listen to loud music without realizing that this can affect their hearing. This could lead to difficulties in understanding speech during age-related hearing loss which affects up to half of people over the age of 65.


New research led by the University of Leicester has examined the cellular mechanisms that underlie hearing loss and tinnitus triggered by exposure to loud sound.

It has demonstrated that physical changes in myelin itself -the coating of the auditory nerve carrying sound signals to the brain – affect our ability to hear.

Dr Martine Hamann, Lecturer in Neurosciences at the University of Leicester, said: “People who suffer from hearing loss have difficulties in understanding speech, particularly when the environment is noisy and when other people are talking nearby.

“Understanding speech relies on fast transmission of auditory signals. Therefore it is important to understand how the speed of signal transmission gets decreased during hearing loss. Understanding these underlying phenomena means that it could be possible to find  medicines to improve auditory perception, specifically in noisy backgrounds.”

The research, funded by Action on Hearing Loss, and led by Leicester, was done in collaboration with Dr Angus Brown of the University of Nottingham. The research, Computational modelling of the effects of auditory nerve dysmyelination is published in Frontiers in Neuroanatomy.

Dr Ralph Holme, Head of Biomedical Research at Action on Hearing Loss, the only UK charity dedicated to funding research into hearing loss said: “There is an urgent need for effective treatments to prevent hearing loss - a condition that affects 10 million people in the UK and all too often isolates people from friends and family. This research further increases our understanding of the biological consequences of exposure to loud noise. Knowledge that we hope will lead to effective treatments for hearing loss within a generation.”

In previous research, researchers have shown that after exposure to loud sounds leading to hearing loss, the myelin coat surrounding the auditory nerve becomes thinner. An important property of auditory signal transmission consists of electrical signals “jumping” from one myelin domain to the other. Those domains, called Nodes of Ranvier, become elongated after exposure to loud sound.

Dr Hamann said: “Although we showed that transmission of auditory signals (electrical signals transmitted along the auditory nerve) was slowed down after exposure to loud sound leading to hearing loss, the question remained: Is this due to the actual change of the physical properties of the myelin or is it due to the redistribution of channels occurring subsequent to those changes?

“This work is a theoretical work whereby we tested the hypothesis that myelin was the prime reason for the decreased signal transmission. We simulated how physical changes to the myelin and/or redistribution of channels influenced the signal transmission along the auditory nerve. We found that the redistribution of channels had only small effect on the conduction velocity whereas physical changes to myelin were primarily responsible for the effects.”

The research has shown for the first time the closer links between a deficit in the “myelin” sheath surrounding the auditory nerve and hearing loss. “This research is innovative because data modelling (simulations) was used on previous morphological data and assessed that physical changes to the myelin coat were the principal cause of the deficit,” said Dr Hamman.

“We have come closer to understanding the reasons behind deficits in auditory perception. This means that we can also get closer to target those deficits, for example by promoting myelin repair after acoustic trauma or during age related hearing loss.”

Dr Hamann said the work will help prevention as well as progression into finding appropriate cures for hearing loss and possibly tinnitus developing from hearing loss.

“The sense of achievement comes from the fact that it could help ageing people to better understand their relatives on the phone,” said Dr Hamann.

The next step is to test drugs that could promote myelin repair and improve hearing after hearing loss.

I know people who would kill to age like a band member.
They ALL look at most in their mid-twenties.
-And in Frank Iero’s case, a twelve-year-old with tattoos.
-I showed a picture of Patrick Stump to my cousin and asked his age. “22”. About eight years off, there.
-Brendon Urie could ass for a high-schooler, I guarantee it.
-Jack Barakat looks around 22.

If you can fall in love again and again, if you can forgive your parents for the crime of bringing you into the world, if you are content to get nowhere, just take each day as it comes, if you can forgive as well as forget, if you can keep from growing sour, surly, bitter and cynical, man you’ve got it half licked.
—  Henry Miller on aging

I enjoyed reading this passage by Thích Nhất Hạnh, in which he eloquently expresses a phenomenon we can all relate to:

"I have a photograph of myself when I was a boy of sixteen. Is it a photograph of me? I am not really sure. Who is this boy in the photograph? Is it the same person as me or is it another person? … 

The body of the boy in the photograph is not the same as my body, now that I am in my seventies. The feelings are different, and the perceptions are very different. It is just as if I am a completely different person from that boy, but if the boy in the photograph did not exist, then I would not exist either. 

I am a continuation like the rain is the continuation of the cloud. When you look deeply into the photograph, you can see me already as an old man. You do not have to wait fifty-five years. When the lemon tree is in flower, you may not see any fruit, but if you look deeply you can see that the fruit is already there… [I]f the lemon tree has time it will express itself in lemons.” 

Thích Nhất HạnhNo Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life (2003)

Johnny Cash was no exception. He was not the only frail older person who flourished in his last years. The painter Henri Matisse, the music conductor Herbert von Karajan, and others reached creative summits in the last seasons of their lives.