April 17, 2014

Computer "Brain Training" .... Should You?

When I decided to research the question – Does computer brain (or cognitive) training work? – I had no idea that the answers would so various, or so complicated.

If one headline I found summed up the issue, it’s this one from an article in the cerebral magazine Scientific American: “Study Shows Brain Power Can Be Bolstered—Maybe.”

It’s no wonder we get a “maybe.” To begin with, what IS brain power? There are so many different elements: reaction time, visual and auditory recognition, attention, processing speed, executive function, and the biggie: memory. Reviewers even chop memory into subgroups, like episodic and working memory.

Even if you zero in on a specific cognitive activity of interest, you have to ask: “Who was tested?” Healthy children? Kids with ADHD? Healthy teens? Healthy adults? Adults with cognitive impairment? Study subjects who were motivated? Subjects who really wanted to improve? 

It’s just like high school: The smart kids who studied, paid attention in class, and did their homework got excellent grades on their tests. The slackers barely got by. So, if you tried to evaluate the success of a teacher’s training abilities, you’d hear as many answers as there are students in class, and you've have the data to prove it.

Why should computer brain training be any different?

Can Positive Results "Generalize"? Will They Last?

April 16, 2014

Naya Barsa Ko Hardik Mangalmaya Shubhakamana!

That's Nepali for "New Year Auspicious Best Wishes!"

This past Sunday marked the start of year 2071 in Nepal. It was also New Year's Day in Bangladesh and other Southeast Asian countries. Many countries celebrate the new year in March or April, coinciding with the beginning of spring. Jews and others celebrate the new year during fall harvest time. We picked the cold, dark beginning of January, when the weather is usually miserable.

Sunday here in Washington was the nicest day we've had this year, and well worth celebrating. So was Saturday, Nepali New Year's Eve. My housemates Nimesh and Bhawana were featured performers at a celebration Saturday night attended by hundreds of local Nepalis. They sang the Nepal national anthem to start the festivities, and later sang this lovely song:


Here are the star performers, close up:

April 15, 2014

From Johns Hopkins: A New Technique to Protect Dopamine-Producing Cells from Deteriorating?

On April 10, the journal Cell reported an interesting development: Researchers at Johns Hopkins identified – and then disabled -- a cellular mechanism in human neurons that triggers a particular type of Parkinson’s disease. The scientists think their discovery could lead to new treatments for people with PD.

The breakthrough was a long time in coming. Building on many years of work to find a biological cause for Parkinson's, the Hopkins scientists hope their new discovery could eventually produce techniques to retard or even prevent the deterioration of dopamine-producing neurons -- the process which leads to PD.

Mutations in the Enzyme LRRK2
About ten years ago, researchers identified a link between Parkinson’s and a mutation in the enzyme "leucine-rich repeat kinase 2" (LRRK2), pronounced “lark2,” which strengthened the notion that PD might have some type of genetic origin. 

At that time, Dr. Ted Dawson (professor of neurology and director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Cells Engineering) and his wife, Dr. Valina Dawson (professor of neurology and member of the Institute for Cell Engineering) cloned the enzyme, and discovered that it was actually a "kinase" -- a specific type of enzyme that transfers phosphate groups to proteins, and even manipulates the proteins, turning them on and off.

In time, researchers learned they could slow the deterioration of dopamine-producing neurons by obstructing this kinase activity in mutated LRKK2 enzymes. Conversely, they could also speed up the death of those brain cells by activating that kinase process to cell proteins.

But there was a catch: scientists didn’t know specifically which protein(s) LRKK2 was affecting. So – as Dawkins describes it – he “went fishing,” using LRKK2 as his “bait” to identify the protein(s).

April 14, 2014

I'm Taking the Day Off. But You Should Watch These Videos

A bright sunny day with temperature in the low 80s! The old rocking chair on the back porch, the Sunday New York Times, our neighborhood farmers' market, a friend and his family stopping by after their battle with the Cherry Blossom Festival mobs -- all seemed more compelling than sitting at the computer to write a blog post.

But I know my readers would be devastated if they didn't get a post today. So I dredged these clips out of my files. I had another reason for saving this first one: I need to look at it periodically to remind myself of what I should be doing:

April 11, 2014

Why the Latest Health Study Is Rarely the Answer

Last week, I was delighted to report on a study that suggested overweight seniors may actually live longer. Wouldn't you know it, but a few days later I received a health newsletter that threw water on this idea of "benign overweight."

Then, a few days later, I got the April 2014 issue of the Nutrition Action Health Newsletter. Its cover story questioned why new health studies seem to flip-flop so often.

Naturally, when a new study overturns everything we've ever heard (e.g., overweight seniors live longer), it garners more press than studies that simply repeat the common wisdom. Headlines tout "earthshaking findings" and downplay humdrum findings. We see this pattern everywhere in the media.

The newsletter cover story gives other examples that explain this flip-flopping.

Cause and Effect Might Be Reversed
For example, NBC's Today Show featured this headline on its website: "Drinking diet sodas makes you eat more." To support the claim, the study reported that overweight or obese diet soda drinkers consumed as many calories as drinkers of sugary sodas. 

But that fact doesn't mean diet sodas cause people to eat more or gain weight. Overweight people tend to consume more diet beverages because they are trying to lose weight.