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03-30 The frontline of brain wellness: innovations in cognitive research

Posted in Mental Health

The frontline of brain wellness: innovations in cognitive research

Thanks to recent technological advances, the field of brain wellness has enjoyed a resurgence in recent decades, seeing the implementation of new and effective approaches to the field. Although still in its infancy, there is a growing body of evidence speaking to the efficacy of these techniques. In the spirit of Brain Awareness Week in March, it may be good to take a look at some of the most promising and controversial new treatments on the brain wellness front.

Arguably the tool enjoying the most research is biofeedback. This is a technique that uses the mind-body connection to influence one’s autonomic nervous system, a system responsible for controlling involuntary functions like blood pressure, muscle tension and brainwaves. Based on ancient Hindu practices like yoga and pranayama (breathing techniques), modern biofeedback incorporates the same concepts, but with the aid of technology. Typically using electrical sensors and a computer that converts the information into an understandable format (e.g. sound, pictures, flashing lights, etc.), patients are able to provide real-time feedback to autonomic process and visually learn how to manage physiological activity.

One form of biofeedback is neurofeedback. This technique functions on the principle that brain activity boosts neurotrophin, the proteins associated with neuronal development. The neurotrophins then spur the growth of dendrites, or filaments that make connections amongst brain cells. The more dendrites, the more communication that is allowed to take place. However, despite some variations of the technique being supported by research and practiced by clinicians, these methods are not without controversy.

Criticism of brain training

Despite being associated with treatment of anxiety and depression, high blood pressure, addiction, migraines, epilepsy and even post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), neurofeedback has its share of critics. The Stanford Center on Longevity and the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Human Development conducted a study involving 70 of the world’s leading experts in neuroscience to assess the current state of brain training exercises. Their summary included the following statement:

“We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do. The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles. In the judgment of the signatories, exaggerated and misleading claims exploit the anxiety of older adults about impending cognitive decline. We encourage continued careful research and validation in this field.”

As opposed to acquired intelligence, fluid intelligence, or the ability to think logically and solve problems in novel situations, has traditionally been believed to be impossible to train. Despite some initial studies claiming to find small boosts in intelligence after using neural exercises, the predominant notion is shaping up to be that fluid intelligence is, in fact, untrainable. Despite increasingly accepted use for mental disorders and addiction issues, biofeedback and brain training routines seem to have no effect on the rest of the population, casting doubt on any future applications as a mainstream educational tool.

More likely the case, brain training is too specific to lead to the large-scale neural changes necessary for improvements in cognition and IQ. For instance, a crossword puzzle would make an individual better at finding words in cluttered masses of data, while memory games may even lead to improvements in short term memory. However, factors like processing speed and mental capacity are dependent on much more than the specific brain region being targeted. There is also a theory gaining credibility which proposes that neurofeedback works primarily by inciting relaxation in response to feelings of control, versus an actual conscious override of the processes.

Although its efficacy as a general IQ booster for the masses is dubious, neurofeedback and brain training are growing in acceptance by a multitude of treatment professionals, with nearly 2,000 clinicians certified through the Biofeedback Certification International Alliance. If you would like to learn more about Brain Awareness Week and how the global campaign is working to increase public awareness of brain research, you may visit the event site.

Sovereign Health of Rancho San Diego incorporates brain wellness tools into our treatment programs for teens struggling with mental health disorders, substance abuse and dual diagnosis. For information regarding Sovereign’s adolescent center and its incorporation of brain wellness methods, feel free to contact us at 866-615-7266.

Written by Chase Beckwith, Sovereign Health Group writer

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