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Marie Pasinski, M.D.

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4 Back-to-School Brain Boosters

Posted: 09/21/2012 8:00 pm

1) The Pen Is Mightier Than the Computer!

In our increasingly high-tech world, smart phones, tablets and laptops are becoming our predominant communication tools. The days of making sure our kids have sharp pencils seem to be fading away. As convenient as these new gadgets are, we should not forget the value of the written word. Studies show that hand writing assists in learning new material and committing it to memory. When writing by hand, the movements encode a more complex motor memory than produced by typing on a keyboard or tapping a touch screen. [1] Ever have the dilemma where you could not spell a word aloud but you could write it? By writing it (even in the air) you activate the motor representation for that word. Since writing by hand takes longer than typing on a keyboard, your brain also has more time to process and reinforce the information.

2) Monkey Bars Before Multiplication Tables

Before your child settles down to start their homework, make sure they have had time to monkey around. Exercise is a magic bullet not only for improving overall health but for boosting brain power, too. Numerous studies demonstrate that exercise improves a child's focus, memory skills and academic achievement. For example, one study found that aerobic exercise was linked with higher math scores and increased activity in the bilateral prefrontal cortex, a brain region important for concentration and decision making. [2] Physical activity benefits the brain by improving brain structure and function. During exercise, there is increased blood flow to the brain, which triggers the release of brain growth factors, endorphins and neurotransmitters. These changes promote the growth of new neurons, strengthen synapses and facilitate the formation of new neural pathways necessary for learning. Exercise has also been shown to increase the size of the hippocampus -- the brain's memory center! [3, 4] All of which will help your child achieve her academic potential.

3) To Receive As, Catch Some Zzzs!

Sleep is essential for students to achieve their academic potential. Not only does a good night sleep prepare us for an active day of learning, it is during sleep that memories are reinforced and learning is consolidated. One of my favorite studies to share with parents demonstrates this beautifully. When subjects were taught motor skills early in the morning and tested 12 hours later before bed, no improvement is noticed. But after a night of slumber, there was a 20 percent increase in speed and a 39 percent increase in accuracy. And while most sleep-enhanced learning took place the first night after training, subjects who had two consecutive nights of adequate sleep increased their speed by 26 percent and their accuracy to nearly 50 percent. Meanwhile, participants who had fewer than six hours of sleep after training showed no overnight improvement. [5] For this reason, when my children were young I would say "Go to bed early so you will remember all the wonderful things you learned in school today!"

4) Snack on Blueberries Instead of Butterfingers!

You're only as smart as the foods you eat. A recent study concluded that a diet high in fructose and low in omega-3s markedly stunted learning in lab rats. After six weeks on this regimen, the rats showed memory deficits in navigating a maze. The diet adversely affected the hippocampus (the brain's memory center) and sabotaged its ability to change synapses -- the chemical connections between brain cells that enable memory and learning. When the rat's diet included omega-3s this prevented the harmful effects of fructose. [6]

Soft drinks, sports drinks, lemonade, iced tea and almost every sweet drink, even many fruit juices, contain high fructose corn syrup. It is also found in a wide range of processed foods from baked goods, cereals and tomato sauce to salad dressing, yogurt and lunch meats. Reading labels, sticking with natural foods and substituting fruits such as blueberries for sugary snacks will limit your child's intake of this unhealthy sweetener.

Omega-3s are the building blocks for a healthy brain. This miracle nutrient is vital for normal brain growth and development. It also plays a key role in forming and strengthening synapses, which allow brain cells to transmit signals to one another, making memory and learning possible. Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and trout provide the most abundant source of omega-3s. For those who are allergic to fish or finicky, less-potent sources include: tofu, walnuts, flaxseed, avocados and humus as well as omega-3 fortified foods including eggs, milk and peanut butter. Omega-3s are also known as "essential fatty acids" because our body can't make them. And nothing could be more essential than ensuring your child's brain has an adequate supply of this super nutrient.

Have a Beautiful Brain Day!

References:

1. Longcamp M, Zerbato-Poudou MT, Velay JL. The influence of writing practice on
letter recognition in preschool children: a comparison between handwriting and typing. Acta Psychol (Amst). 2005 May;119(1):67-79.

2. Davis CL, Tomporowski PD, McDowell JE, Austin BP, Miller PH, Yanasak NE,
Allison JD, Naglieri JA. Exercise improves executive function and achievement and alters brain activation in overweight children: a randomized, controlled trial.Health Psychol. 2011 Jan;30(1):91-8.

3. Colcombe SJ, Erickson KI, Scalf PE, Kim JS, Prakash R, McAuley E, Elavsky S,Marquez DX, Hu L, Kramer AF. Aerobic exercise training increases brain volume in aging humans. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2006 Nov;61(11):1166-70.

4. Pereira AC, Huddleston DE, Brickman AM, Sosunov AA, Hen R, McKhann GM, Sloan R, Gage FH, Brown TR, Small SA. An in vivo correlate of exercise-induced neurogenesis in the adult dentate gyrus. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2007 Mar 27;104(13):5638-43.

5. Erickson KI, Voss MW, Prakash RS, Basak C, Szabo A, Chaddock L, Kim JS, Heo S,Alves H, White SM, Wojcicki TR, Mailey E, Vieira VJ, Martin SA, Pence BD, Woods JA, McAuley E, Kramer AF. Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Feb 15;108(7):3017-22.

6. Walker MP, Stickgold R. It's practice, with sleep, that makes perfect: implications of sleep-dependent learning and plasticity for skill performance. Clin Sports Med. 2005 Apr;24(2):301-17, ix. Review.

7. Agrawal R, Gomez-Pinilla F. 'Metabolic syndrome' in the brain: deficiency in omega-3 fatty acid exacerbates dysfunctions in insulin receptor signalling and cognition. J Physiol. 2012 May 1;590(Pt 10):2485-99.

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