Book Review: The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness

Reading time: 6 – 9 minutes

Many people believe that the brain is hardwired in childhood and, as we grow older, cognitive decline is inevitable; we becoming more forgetful, less inclined to seek new experiences and more set in our ways. During the late 1990s, the work of early childhood advocates to focus on learning during the first three years of life had a dramatic impact public opinion and social policy that has lasted almost a decade. Indeed, the importance of learning during a child’s first three years of life was widely accepted as a fact of early neurological development. Unfortunately, advocacy efforts actually countered what neuroscientists were discovering about the brain and its development [1].

Scientific research in the late 1990s was finding that the adult brain had a much greater capacity for neuroplasticity — the ability to change structure and function in response to thought, learning and experience — than was previously believed [2-3]. Neuroscientists found that the adult brain was capable of growing new dendrites, branched projections from a neuron or nerve cell that conduct electrochemical stimulation received from other neural cells toward the cell body of the neuron, which are often damaged as a result of traumatic head injury or stroke. In adult macaques, researchers found that new neurons were produced in brain regions important for congitive function [4]. The view that aging was equivalent to ubiquitous and rapid cognitive decline thus gave way to a recognition that, for some people, mental acuity continues well into old age. Today, it’s common to hear about “brain fitness” and/or “brain training” products that can help to maintain and/or rebuild cognitive performance. However, in this rapidly evolving field, it’s difficult to discern fact from fiction.

The Sharp Brains Guide to Brain Fitness: 18 Interviews with Scientists, Practical Advice, and Product Reviews, to Keep Your Brain Sharp is written for both lifelong learners, caregivers and professionals in fields such as healthcare, education or psychology. The goal of the guide is to help people make informed decisions about brain health and cognitive fitness, based on the latest scientific research, and to help navigate new products and confusing myths and claims that are part of the emerging brain fitness market.

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The guide is co-authored by Alvaro Fernandez and Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg, co-founders of SharpBrains, a leading market research and advisory services firm covering the growing number of education and healthcare applications of cognitive science and neuroscience. Alvaro Fernandez sent Highlight HEALTH a copy of the guide for review and, to get right to the point, I found it to be an excellent read on the field of brain fitness and results of research into neuroplasticity. At a succinct 150 pages, The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness provides a complete yet easy-to-read overview of the science, products and trends in the brain fitness market.

The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness is organized into seven chapters:

  • The Brain and Brain Fitness 101
  • The 4 Pillars of Brain Maintenance
  • Mental Exercise vs. Mental Activity
  • Brain Training Software: Profiles, Evaluation Criteria and 21 Quick Picks
  • A Growing Range of Applications
  • Ready for the Future?
  • Opening the Debate

The first four chapters open with bulleted list of take-home points. Each chapter is logically organized with numbered subsections. The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness has a concise table of contents as well as a glossary, index and list of references for each chapter. At the end of chapters 1–3 and 5 are transcripts of interviews conducted by Alvaro Fernandez over the last two years (September 2006 — November 2008) with 18 prominent scientists in the field that provide in-depth reviews of the scientific topics covered. I found the informal interview format an excellent way to explain the evidence-based research. It was also enlightening to read each scientist’s views on their findings and the implications for brain health.

The book also contains practical tips on how to improve learning abilities, nutritional recommendations for brain health and how to manage stress. The authors frequently repeat information — which I found to be particularly helpful at driving home important concepts — from the bulleted list of take-home points at the beginning of chapters, to the brief mention of topics early in each chapter that are then discussed in more detail in the end-of-chapter interviews, to important “take away” paragraphs.

Chapter 4 focuses on brain training software and details a checklist for evaluating computer-based programs. The top products are organized into three categories based on purpose and include information on the product type and target age, targeted brain function, level of clinical validation and price point:

  • Top 8 overall brain maintenance products
  • Top 8 targeted brain workout products
  • Top 5 stress management products

Since I have a young daughter, I specifically focused on software targeted for children. I was disappointed to find that there are few products currently available for children that have a medium to high level of clinical validation and are priced under $100. Nevertheless, thanks to the guide, I was able to review a number of online resources that are quite affordable (albeit with very limited or low clinical validation). As the field continues to grow and more research is done, I’m sure there will be additional products to choose from and SharpBrains will be there to break it all down for us.

Chapter 6 describes trends the authors believe to be important for brain health and provides ideas on how to introduce brain fitness into your personal life and/or workplace. The chapter also details ongoing studies and upcoming initiatives focused on brain fitness and neuroplasticity.

In summary, the SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness is an essential reference on the field of brain fitness, neuroplasticity and cognitive health. The guide aims to educate readers about brain health and cognitive fitness, and to categorize and describe top products in the emerging brain fitness market. It does this brilliantly, including the latest findings from evidence-based research in an easy-to-read manner. If you’re interested in brain fitness and cognitive health, your first step should be to read The Sharp Brains Guide to Brain Fitness.

References

  1. Sara Mead. Million Dollar Babies: Why Infants Can’t be Hardwired for Success. Education Sector. 2007 Apr 3.
  2. Kolb and Whishaw. Brain plasticity and behavior. Annu Rev Psychol. 1998;49:43-64.
    View abstract
  3. Buonomano and Merzenich. Cortical plasticity: from synapses to maps. Annu Rev Neurosci. 1998;21:149-86.
    View abstract
  4. Gould et al. Neurogenesis in the neocortex of adult primates. Science. 1999 Oct 15;286(5439):548-52.
    View abstract
About the Author

Walter Jessen is Principal at Highlight Health Media, which publishes Highlight HEALTH. He's also a senior writer at Highlight HEALTH.