Combination of Tests May Improve Alzheimer’s Diagnosis

Using both imaging and biomarker tests for Alzheimer’s disease leads to more accurate diagnostic results, a Duke Medicine study suggests in this week’s Radiology.

In the press release, study author Jeffrey Petrella, M.D., explains, “This study marks the first time these diagnostic tests have been used together to help predict the progression of Alzheimer’s. If you use all three biomarkers, you get a benefit above that of the pencil-and-paper neuropsychological tests used by doctors today… Each of these tests adds new information by looking at Alzheimer’s from a different angle.”

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Can the Arts Contribute to Healthier Aging?

On September 14th, The National Academies of Sciences (NAS) hosted the workshop, “Research Gaps and Opportunities for Exploring the Relationship of the Arts to Health and Well-Being in Older Adults,” in collaboration with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and three divisions of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The D.C. workshop featured experts from the health and arts fields, who discussed current arts and aging research, and the need for increased exploration.

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From the Archives: Exercise

National Senior Health and Fitness Day just passed, a good reason to revisit what scientists know about exercise and brain health, and not just for seniors. 

The Dana archives do not disappoint. Here’s what articles spanning the last six years tell us:

  • Exercise and longevity are correlated. As explained in a 2008 interview with Dana Alliance member Claudia Kawas, “An average of 15 minutes a day provided benefit, 30 provided more, 45 provided the most, and after that it leveled off: three hours was just as good as 45 minutes.”
  • Conversely, a 2009 article describes, “studies of large elderly populations have linked a sedentary lifestyle to greater risk of age-related cognitive impairment.”

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Video games stay on the brain?

Thinking of sneaking in a few rounds of Halo during your lunch break? You may want to reconsider—the video games we play may have long-lasting effects on how we study and work.

According to a new study in the journal Perception, different genres of video games “prime” us for certain ways of thinking. Scientists at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., found that, after playing Unreal Tournament, a fast-action first-person shooting game, people were faster but less accurate at spatial and perception tasks. In contrast, after sitting down to Portal, which involves solving puzzles, people became more accurate but slower at the follow-up tasks.

In some ways, this is not too surprising. Scientists have long known that, over time, video games—like any form of entertainment—cause changes in the brain. As Douglas Gentile
writes in a recent Cerebrum piece
, these effects are many and can have both positive and negative influences. Fast-paced games can increase reaction times and perceptual discrimination, just as violent video games can blunt typical brain reactions to the suffering
of others.

But psychology professor Rolf Nelson, who led the study, speculates that the priming effect might have significant effects on our day-to-day work and school lives, since the changes show up after only an hour of play. Such a short chunk of time, he says, suggests that action fans may return to homework assignments with increased speed at the cost of making more mistakes; puzzle aficionados might become more methodical and accurate at work but fail to meet deadlines.

Determining whether that is actually the case will require significantly more study, of course. Video games are complex and varied and rarely have a single mode of play, while the tasks presented to research subjects don’t really reflect what goes on in the modern workplace. It’s also unclear how long the effect lasts and whether people can become “immune” to it. But such studies demonstrate the usefulness of research that parses out the exact effects of video games and other technologies on the brain. If confirmed, Nelson’s work suggests that some frantic Call of Duty action might help me meet pending afternoon deadlines—OK as long as my editor ensures an extra-sharp eye with some rounds of Tetris and Minesweeper.

-Aalok Mehta

Refunds on the way for Baby Einstein videos

On Saturday, Tamar Lewin of the New York Times reported that the Walt Disney Company is now offering refunds for its popular but controversial Baby Einstein videos.

According to the article, Baby Einstein was founded in 1997; Disney acquired the company in 2001 and expanded it to offer a full line of DVDs, books, toys, flash cards and apparel aimed at infants and toddlers. It’s estimated that Baby Einstein now controls 90 percent of the baby media market, selling $200 million worth of products annually.

The move comes after a heated battle over the marketing claims Disney has used to sell the line. Lewin, for instance, quotes Susan Linn, the director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, which has been pushing Disney and other baby media companies to acknowledge that the videos are not, indeed, educational. “The unusual video refunds appear to be a tacit admission that they did not increase infant intellect,” Lewin writes.

Perhaps this will serve as a death knell to the marketing hype that began when the so-called “Mozart effect” was first reported in a 1993 letter published in the journal Nature. The paper claimed that college students exposed to classical music had better spatial reasoning skills, which are important to success in math and science. Scientists, however, have not reliably replicated the phenomenon. And there is little hard evidence for the effectiveness of any of the products available commercially.

The lack of science-based data, however, is being rectified by scientists doing more quantifiable studies in arts training. In the “Learning, Arts, and the Brain” report, the Dana Foundation’s Arts and Cognition Consortium reported on some of the initial studies looking at the connections between media, education and the brain. Since then researchers have gained a more sophisticated understanding of how young minds develop and learn, including new findings reported this May at a summit in Baltimore. Acknowledging that much more research needs to be done, neuroscientists also recently outlined plans to grow and unify work in the field.

In the meantime, for lack of a better alternative, many parents have gone with their intuition and concluded that the best teaching “device” for brain development is low-tech. Parental involvement with one’s child, whether in the form of conversation, games and book reading, may provide the best stimulation for growing brains and minds.

Neuroscientists and pediatricians back this idea up. Lewin notes that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV time at all for children under age 2. In the Ten Guideposts for Parents chapter in Dana Press book A Good Start in Life, Norbert Herschkowitz and Elinore Chapman Herschkowitz make a similar suggestion.

—Rosemary Shields

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