Brain Boosting: Quo Vadis, Dominie?

June 27, 2009

Brain Training
    Susanne Jaeggi and Martin Buschkühl, in the Psychology Departmennt at the University of Bern (currently at the Universityof Michigan) claim to have developed a "dual n-back" brain training program that for the first time, has actually elevated IQ scores on the BOMAT (a more difficult version of the Raven Progressive Matrices). This dual n-back program presents you with a 3 X 3 matrix. (The inner square isn't used; only the outer eight squares.) A square will light up, and then a letter of the alphabet is spoken. Next, another square lights up and another letter is spoken. Then this happens a third time. For the simplest, two-back training regime, if the square that lights up on the third presentation is the same square that lit up in the first presentation, you press the letter "A" on the left side of your keyboard. If the letter spoken on the third presentation is the same as the letter spoken in the first presentation, you press the "L" on the right side of your keyboard. (If both the square that lights up and the letter spoken are the same as they were in the first presentation, you'll press both the "A" and the "L".)
    After you've decided whether the square and/or the letter are the same as that presented two trials back, you make note of the new location and the new letter because two presentations from now, a new square and a new letter will be presented to you that you must test against this third square and letter.
    Next, in the fourth presentation, another square lights up and another letter is spoken. This time, you must  compare this square and this letter with the square and letter presented in the second trial. So you've got two independent threads going at once. It's tricky.
    Once you've mastered the 2-back case, the ante is upped by going to the 3-back case in which you have three threads running at once.
    It seems counter-intuitive that this training program would improve your scores on the BOMAT (or Raven Progressive Matrices), but the researchers say that among their volunteers, over the course of 19 trials, it did.
    Dual (matrix location and spoken letter) n-back programs are available from the University of Bern for $60, and from a Good Samaritan free of charge.
The Significance of "Brain Boosting"
    Both these studies are small-scale, short-term pilot studies that await replication by other researchers. These results aren't a sure thing. But what's exciting about this is the idea that it can be done at all. If brain-training measures can boost IQ independently of "smart drugs" and "smart nutrients", then we've added another string to the bow.
    When I was a teenager 65 years ago, I fantasized that one of the tipping points for human progress would come when, as a race, we learned how to boost our own intelligence. At that point, humanity would begin boot-strapping itself, using its burgeoning intelligence to devise ways to further enhance its intelligence. We may now have reached that Great Divide.
    In 2001, I wrote a book review of Ray Sahelian, M. D.'s, book, ""Mind Boosters". My review contains a claim made by a Johns Hopkins spokesperson that by 2010, it will be possible to boost s child's IQ by 50 points. Um-m-m. I'm not sure that's going to happen by 2010, but there seems to be a menagerie of "brain boosters" available to the enterprising self-improver.
The Dark Side of "Brain Boosting"
    I chanced upon a bulletin board posting asking how many businessmen are taking modafinil or piracetam. If mind-boosting techniques are beginning to work, it seems to me that there will be an "arms race" among those entering the work place to boost their intelligence levels. In other words, it will no longer be much of an option whether or not they seek to boost their IQ levels. Competitive pressures will force the issue. This would seem to me to be particularly true of brain training programs, where there are no known risks. 
    At the same time, there might be commercial opportunities to cash in on this trend.

Long-Term Versus Short-Term Use of Nootropics
    One can use short-term nootropics like creatine... for example, when facing final exams... that might or might not be suitable for long-term use. However, there are a number of agents, including some foods, that might be OK for continuing consumption. 
Foods That Act as Nootropics
    For example, one food that seem to proffer brain-building payoffs is the lowly blueberry: 
(1) Search on "Blueberries  Cognition  Memory"
(2) Getting Forgetful? Then Blueberries May Hold The Key

(3) Scientists Learn How Food Affects The Brain: Omega 3 Especially ...

(4) Modulation of hippocampal plasticity and cognitive behavior by short-term blueberry supplementation in aged rats ...

(5) BBC NEWS | Health | Blueberries 'reverse memory loss'
    Strawberries also show sizable brain-enhancing effects. 
(1) Search on "Strawberries  Cognition  Memory"
(2) ARS Project: The Effects of Strawberries on Cognition and Neuronal Communication in Aging: Mechanistic Considerations .... [U. S. Department of Agriculture]
(3) Natural Therapies to Preserve and Enhance Cognition and Memory
(4) Maintaining Youthful Cognitive Function With Blueberries - Life Extension.Magazine..
(5) Age-Related Cognitive Decline - University of Michigan Health System
(6) Recent advances in berry supplementation and age-related cognitive decline
(7) What we need to know about age related memory loss
    Dark chocolate--at least, the kind found in chocolate candy--is of limited value in boosting memory and cognition. Maximum effects are seen at about 10 grams. However, there's a back story here. The Harvard Medical School's Norman Hollenberg, M. D., Ph. D., has investigated the extraordinary low levels of age-adjusted degenerative diseases in Panama's Kuna Indian tribe. The Kuna Indians inhabit the 300+ San Blas Islands located just off the east coast of Panama. According to Dr. Hollenberg, the Kunas exhibit, on average, about 1/10th the age-adjusted rates of degenerative diseases experienced by other populations, with about 15% of the overall age-adjusted rate of cancer, and about 7½ % the overall age-adjusted rate of cardiovascular disease that characterize other populations. Kunas who emigrate to the Panamanian mainland tend to lose this degenerative disease advantage. Dr. Hollenberg attributes the Kuna's charmed existences to the fact that they consume about 40 cups of minimally-processed cocoa (extracted with low heat and no alkali) a week. This preserves the epicatechin in the chocolate that Dr. Hollenberg considers to be the "secret sauce" that protects the Kunas. Among the diseases that are virtually non-existent among the Kunas are Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.
    I need to research this further before recommending it.
(1) In Brief: Chocolate increases cognitive performance
(2) Chocolate, Wine And Tea Can Improve Your Memory | Top News
(3) Blueberries, tea, chocolate, memory and skepticism « Psychology in the.News..
(4) Intake of Flavonoid-Rich Wine, Tea, and Chocolate by Elderly Men ...
(5) Epicatechin, Importnat Catechin Found In Green Tea May Improve Memory

December 2008 news reports
French maritime pine bark may improve senior cognition.(RESEARCH HIGHLIGHTS)(Brief article)