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Mental challenges may have neuroprotective effect on brain

Recent evidence suggests that engaging in enjoyable and enriching lifestyle activities may be associated with maintaining cognitive vitality. However, the underlying mechanism accounting for cognitive enhancement effects have been poorly understood.

Investigators at the University of Texas at Dallas proposed that only tasks that involved sustained mental effort and challenge would facilitate cognitive function.

The study compared changes in brain activity in 39 older adults that resulted from the performance of high-challenge activities that required new learning and sustained mental effort compared to low-challenge activities that did not require active learning.  

All of the participants underwent a battery of cognitive tests and brain scans using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), an MRI technology that measures brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow.

Researchers found that the high-challenge group demonstrated better memory performance after the intervention, and an increased ability to modulate brain activity more efficiently, which is a trait associated with young minds. Some of this enhanced brain activity was maintained a year later. The low-challenge group did not display a change in modulation.

The findings show that mentally demanding activities may be neuroprotective and an important element for maintaining a healthy brain into late adulthood.

Ian McDonough, who is now an assistant professor of Psychology at the University of Alabama and was first author on the study, said: "The study clearly illustrates that the enhanced neural efficiency was a direct consequence of participation in a demanding learning environment. The findings superficially confirm the familiar adage regarding cognitive aging of 'Use it or lose it.'"

Writing in Epilepsy Society's magazine, Epilepsy Review, Dr Eleanor Tilett, honorary consultant in sports and exercise medicine at The Institute for Sport, Exercise and Health, University College  Hospital, London, said that for people with epilepsy, it would seem that exercise increases the level of neurotransmitters in the brain, so helping to increase seizure threshold.

'There is also some evidence to suggest that exercise in early and mid life may help to protect against the risk of brain disorders later in life,' she said.