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Boosting brain power

July 07, 2016 | UCI Health
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We all know about the performance-enhancing substances in the world of sports. They’re banned, they’re unsportsmanlike and they can carry great risks — but they do lead athletes to new heights.

But what about in classrooms and in the office? Is there anything that can power our brains, or slow or prevent cognition loss after we turn 40? And can it do that safely?

Websites are full of recommendations to eat such allegedly “brain boosting” foods as blackberries and avocados, or take vitamin D, or undergo oxygen therapy in a hyperbaric chamber. They vaguely cite “studies that show” as evidence that this is serious stuff.

Boosters need proof

But Dr. Chuang-Kuo Wu, a UCI Health neurologist, and professor of neurology, says that a closer look at these studies shows that they don’t prove what the products might claim. That doesn’t mean the studies were no good, just that the science has been inappropriately used to undergird unproven health claims.

Take hyperbaric oxygen therapy, known to help people with traumatic brain injury. That’s not the same as making healthy people smarter.

Same with vitamin D: People with low blood-serum levels of the vitamin do show much lower cognitive function, Wu says, so those people would benefit by getting more of it. But a person who takes sufficient amounts of vitamin D won’t enhance brain skills by taking extra.

Good nutrition overall is important to brain health, Wu says, because the body supports the brain, but there are no magic-bullet foods to sharpen cognition.

Brain-training games

Then there are the digital and online brain-training games that promise to improve cognition function. In a way, they do, Wu says. Practice a particular game over and over, and you will get better at that game, which isn’t exactly a surprise. But those skills won’t translate into better overall mental sharpness. In fact, they won’t even help you do better at the games you haven’t practiced.

Even the role of exercise is unclear, despite the many outright assertions that it improves cognition, possibly by stimulating the growth of new brain cells. Existing studies have found such a connection, but in rats, Wu says. So far, he said, there’s a dearth of evidence that it applies to humans, though the possibility is still being studied.

Do medications help or hurt?

Perhaps the closest thing we have to drug abuse in pursuit of mental performance is the misuse of Ritalin and related stimulant medications that are prescribed to improve focus in people who have attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But students without the attention disorder find ways to get hold of these drugs illegally to help them through exam week or the SAT.

In a way — and for a short period of time — the medications will increase their alertness, Wu says. But the drugs come with side effects, such as a chance of becoming dependent on them and increased risk of heart problems. Doctors who are prescribing the drugs for patients who need them screen for pre-existing conditions and to monitor use of the medications.

A safer way to get a temporary boost of alertness is with caffeine — but again, the effects are temporary, lasting perhaps a few hours.

Sunshine also can help. It contributes to getting sufficient amounts of vitamin D and stimulates the brain through the eyes, Wu said.

Old methods work best

But his best, research-based advice to people who want to perform better in school and at work is more old-fashioned: Deep reading — the slow, involved reading of complex literature, as opposed to skimming or passively reading — improves thinking ability, Wu says.

And for many of the young people he sees, the solution to developing better mental skills sounds like something their parents have told them for years: Focus on what you’re doing. Stop multitasking — as in checking out your iPhone every few minutes.

In other words, pay attention.

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