How to prevent brain drain

Last updated 05:00 21/12/2013

TEST YOURSELF: Surprise surprise, using your brain makes you better at using your brain.

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You're standing in front of the fridge and, for the life of you, can't remember what you are looking for.

It's not uncommon for us to have short-term memory lapses, but it is disconcerting.

Even more so as we wonder whether we're just getting old and barmy.

It's worth remembering that our short-term memory can only handle a handful of items at a time. Gradually it files the more important pieces of information into our long-term memory (a separate strand of memory, which is responsible for recollecting our experiences).

But, various factors do speed up the decline of short-term memory. These include environmental elements, excess alcohol, drugs and cigarettes. The effect ageing has on the memory part of the brain, however, is said to be the biggest contributor.

Thankfully, like the rest of our muscles, if we work it, our brain is more likely to keep working for us.

To help us help ourselves, neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists from the University of Melbourne have teamed up with the ABC to develop a series of fun mind games which work on active memory.

Active memory is a term for cognitive training - performing a series of activities designed to tap different aspects of brain function which affect short-term memory, explains Dr Damian Birney, an honorary principal research Fellow at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health.

"As we age, long-term and short-term memory retrieval can be difficult," Birney says. "Long-term, memory relates to our experiences, whereas short-term memory relates to our ability to hold things to reason or link words we've just read with words we're about to read."

Exercising our active memory "is worthwhile for healthy ageing - for a healthy quality of life," Birney says. "Staying cognitively active can build our cognitive reserve. Studies have shown if you give rats an enriched environment they are less susceptible to the effects of ageing."

Studies in humans, however are less conclusive.

One study of 11,000 people found that "brain training games lead to better performance on... brain training games."

Not exactly profound findings. But, other studies (that have had either very small sample sizes or design flaws) have found that brain training games can affect our overall cognitive function.

One Swedish study found that working on active memory improved mental performance in other areas and altered the number of dopamine receptors in the brain - these are responsible for learning and other cognitive functions.

"This is very remarkable given that 100 years before that, it was said that you can't change fluid intelligence," Birney explains.

"While researchers know that there are anatomical changes in the brain after active memory training, the big challenge in this area is understanding whether these skills can translate to [other areas]."

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People tend to self-report better cognitive function as a result of brain training games, Birney says. "That is, less standing in front of the fridge and wondering what you're doing there."

But, to try and clear up the discrepancies of the previous studies, Birney and his colleagues are setting up a three year study using the games they have developed for the ABC.

Instead of being based on basic adaptation, which is where the better you get at a task, the more challenging it becomes and vice versa, "we are trying to build adaptation across tasks - which task should it be next - and have games that tap into attention, spatial skills and reasoning".

His hope, through the research, is "to demonstrate that our abilities are much more malleable than originally thought".

"Even if we can't demonstrate that it can be improved, if we can show it is possible to use [cognitive functions] better, then for all intents and purposes we have changed [our understanding] on a fundamental level."

- Sydney Morning Herald


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