Video Games and the Brain: Action, Strategy, and Pac-Man

Playing some video games can cause serious harm, while others might improve or restore skills, suggested three panelists at the American Association for the Advancement of Science this week.

“Not all games are created equal,” said Chandramallika Basak, a researcher at the University of Texas at Dallas. She and her colleagues study how memory and other skills change across our lifespan; part of that includes research investigating brain and cognitive effects of different games, especially as people get older.

Not everything in your brain declines with age (crystallized memory stays strong), but she’s looking for activities that could strengthen the ones that do, especially working memory (including how fast you can update current information) and task-switching (how fast you can switch when multitasking). Assuming there is a “functional threshold” for success at daily life, she wonders, “Can we keep this declining cognitive abilities stable for a few more years” above this threshold. “If I’m going to live to 90, I’d rather get it [dementia] at 89” as opposed to earlier, she said.

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AAAS’s Deborah Runkle moderates the Q&A session with, from left, Craig Anderson, Hilarie Cash, and Chandramallika Basak.

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Sleep Disorders as Prologue to Disease: From the Archives

What a (incremental) difference seven years make. In 2009, when we wrote about Dana Alliance member David Holtzman’s work, the headline was “Could Sleep Disorders Contribute to Alzheimer’s?” This month, Scientific American describes the work he and colleagues at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis are doing using the headline “Why Sleep Disorders May Precede Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.” We’ve gone from “maybe take a look” to “what’s the mechanism” on evidence for a link between sleep troubles and risk for neurodegenerative disorders has come.

Scientific American’s Simon Makin calls the Holtzman lab’s 2009 discovery the “best evidence for a causal relationship” From our story:

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Neuroethics and the BRAIN Initiative

brain-initiative-neuroethicsNeuroscience “is the science that is going to change the way people live, die, and think about themselves,” said Stanford Law professor Hank Greely during the third annual BRAIN Initiative investigators meeting, held in Bethesda, Md., last week. Research into the workings of the brain raises many ethical questions, some common to bioethics and others—such as questions of agency, consciousness, and identity—that are unique to the brain and central nervous system.

Neuroethics has been mentioned from the first public announcement of the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative in 2013; a BRAINI workgroup is devoted to the topic. It is one of nine BRAIN Initiative priority funding areas for the coming fiscal year (grant info). At this meeting, a regular session was devoted to the topic, featuring five of the members of the workgroup, and it also came up in other sessions.

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New Video on Dana Alliance Member Wendy Suzuki

The Huffington Post recently published an article on neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki, highlighting her research on exercise and the brain. She is a Dana Alliance member and professor of neural science and psychology at New York University. In the article, Suzuki says:

Exercise is not going to cure Alzheimer’s or dementia but it anatomically strengthens two of the key targets of both diseases, the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. Your hippocampus will be bigger if you exercise regularly, so that means that it’s going to take that much longer for the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s disease to cause behavioral effects.

For a detailed look into her lab and research, watch the video below. To read the full Huffington Post article, click here.

For more articles on Suzuki, check out these blog posts.

Facial Cues and the Brain

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As human beings, we can tend to be a little judgmental–sometimes without even realizing it. When we first meet someone, our brains are busy processing facial features, body language, personality traits, etc., within milliseconds of just saying “hello.” So what characteristics make us assume certain things about people we just meet, and can these unconscious first impressions really change the way we perceive someone?

Expanding on this topic, neuroscientist Jon Freeman, Ph.D., spoke to a room crowded with eager listeners as the featured guest in the latest event from the Secret Science Club. As director of the Social Cognitive & Neural Sciences lab at New York University, Freeman devotes all of his research to understanding “split-second social perception”—that is, how our brains use subtle facial cues, personality traits, and emotion to instantly categorize others into social groups. With the help of brain imaging technology (fMRI), electrophysiology (EEG and ERP), and real-time behavioral techniques, Freeman is able to study activity within the brain in hopes of learning more about the phenomena of snap judgments.

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