03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Top 7 FAQs On Brain Fitness And Neuroplasticity

We recently ran an online survey among subscribers of our SharpBrains eNewsletter, and over 500 people said we have helped them make better personal or professional decisions on how to maintain and improve brain fitness. Most gave very illuminating examples, which we are reading and enjoying as we speak.

Respondents also had many good questions to ask, so I have selected the 7 most common ones, and answered them below. I hope you enjoy the FAQ session.

Q: What exactly does neuroplasticity mean, and why is it so important for education and health?

A: Learning changes your brain physically. Neuroplasticity or brain plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to CHANGE throughout life. The brain has the amazing ability to reorganize itself by forming new connections between brain cells (neurons). For a long time, it was believed that as we aged, the connections in the brain became fixed. Research has shown that in fact the brain never stops changing through learning.

Q. I read so many conflicting things on how to maintain my brain fitness that I don’t know where to start.

A. You are not alone. We recommend focusing on four pillars of brain fitness: physical exercise, a balanced diet, stress management, and brain exercise. Stress management is important since stress has been shown to actually kill neurons and reduce the rate of creation of new ones. Brain exercises range from low-tech (i.e. meditation, mastering new complex skills, lifelong learning and engagement) to high-tech (i.e. using the growing number of brain fitness software programs).

Q. Everyone seems obsessed with brain games. What about meditation?

A. As Daniel Goleman recently pointed out, "the good news is that we can grow our willpower; like a muscle, the more we use it, the more it gradually increases over time. But doing this takes, of all things, willpower." Mindfulness training has been shown to be an effective practice to drive neuroplasticity and build attention, so it an important part of the mix.

Q. Do brain training exercises and cognitive training programs work?

A. As a category, it certainly seems so, as long as we ask the right questions: Which programs?, Work For Whom, Work For What?. Brain training can appear very confusing as the media keeps reporting contradictory claims. These claims are often based on press releases, without a deeper evaluation of the scientific evidence. In summary, I'd say that research has shown how brain and cognitive training can help healthy adults improve specific cognitive skills, and improvements seem to last longer than the training itself. Not only that, but cognitive training seems to help adults in the early stages of cognitive impairment and even Alzheimer's Disease. Now, not all programs do the same, so consumers and professionals must make well-informed decisions. There are no magic pills out there.

Q. So this is more serious than "brain games" like Nintendo Brain Age?

A: Nintendo did indeed create consumer awareness for brain games, but brain training has solid roots in neuropsychology and cognitive neuroscience. It is often said that new neuroimaging methods have changed neuroscience in the same way that the telescope changed astronomy: scientists now understand much better than only 20 years ago what haappens inside the brain of a live person.

Q. What about neurofeedback?

A. After years of much clinical use and little solid evidence, several important trials have been published in 2009, showing how neurofeedback can help diagnose and treat ADHD patients, for example.

Q. Based on all this, how can one improve memory?

A. The most important thing to realize is that the brain does more than store "memory". For example, if you don't pay real attention to something, how can you expect to remember it later? By choosing to attend to something and focus on it, you create a personal interaction with it, which gives it personal meaning, making it easier to remember. Here you have some more tips to improve memory. So, programs that build our perception and attention abilities can in fact help improve our memory.

Let me give you an example: can you draw from memory both sides of a penny? Please try, adding all the details that you can remember.

Now go get a real penny and compare. Did you remember all the details? did you draw them in the right location? Most likely not, despite having had thousands of penny coins in your hands for years.
In summary, then, brain fitness means having the mental abilities (such as attention and memory) required to thrive in our lives and jobs. Neuroplasticity means that, with the proper attention and training, we can improve our brain fitness, no matter where we start!