Do Brain Games Help Brain Health?
Sep 23, 2019 Kyle Beswick
Neuroplasticity is the brain's power to rewire itself and make new connections in response to learning and stimulation.
It's this ever-changing process in the brain tissue that keeps you sharp—preserving memories and storing knowledge as you age—while fending off neurodegeneration, a condition that can lead to diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's.
"Challenging your brain to learn something new—such as a foreign language or a musical instrument—has been shown, both in healthy individuals and patients dealing with mild cognitive impairment, to improve brain structures and neuroplasticity."
So-called brain exercises such as crossword puzzles or sudoku are thought to keep your brain cells active and healthy, but do they actually boost neuroplasticity?
According to vascular neurologist Dr. Oana Dumitrascu, assistant professor of Neurology, keeping the brain healthy is more complex than simply doing daily puzzles from the comfort of your couch.
"Repetitive activities and staying in your comfort zone will not improve your neuroplasticity," says Dr. Dumitrascu. "You need to challenge yourself every day."
What can be learned from brain trauma
Dr. Dumitrascu believes you can learn a lot about neuroplasticity from how patients with brain trauma recover, because there's no magic pill that heals brain injury. Treatment relies on stimulating the brain to heal itself through neuroplasticity.
In the case of cognitive or physical impairments, such as after a stroke or other kind of brain trauma, patients rely on neuroplasticity to reconnect the brain cells in damaged areas.
"Some brain cells are in an 'active mode,' and others are in a 'default mode,'" says Dr. Dumitrascu.
"Post-stroke, for instance, the brain is hoping to recruit neighboring cells that are in 'default mode' to compensate for the function of the damaged cells. This act of neuroplasticity can be achieved through cognitive stimulation."
Observing how the brain recovers through stimulating suggests ways to keep the brain healthy in the long term.
"I recommend meditation and mindfulness to my patients," says Dr. Dumitrascu. "These exercises allow the cells in 'default mode' to be more active and re-form connections with other cells.
"This practice can lead to improved neuroplasticity, which helps with cognitive rehabilitation and overall brain health."
New learning leads to brain health
In addition to meditation and mindfulness, Dr. Dumitrascu suggests additional brain challenges to her patients.
"Challenging your brain to learn something new—such as a foreign language or a musical instrument—has been shown, both in healthy individuals and patients dealing with mild cognitive impairment, to improve brain structures and neuroplasticity," she says.
Dr. Dumitrascu also recommends brain-exercise apps and brain games, but only those that have gone through rigorous research trials.
There are apps and games that have been studied in well-designed, randomized clinical trials and have been proven to improve the brain's processing speed, attention, and memory, all thanks to neuroplasticity.
"I advise patients to do a combination of physical activity and brain exercises every day. The key is to challenge yourself."
The mind-body connection to neuroplasticity
Another successful brain health strategy is to challenge the body through physical activity.
"Aerobic exercise has been proven to significantly improve neuroplasticity," says Dr. Dumitrascu.
"Running, swimming, or any other aerobic exercise done at a fast pace has been shown to recruit new blood vessels to the brain, to increase blood flow to brain cells and to optimize the connections in the brain."
Along with rigorous aerobic exercise, Dr. Dumitrascu believes proper diet and sleep habits are crucial to long-term brain health.
"The main problem I see with people coming to me with cognitive complaints is lack of sleep," she says.
"Sleep disturbances in young and middle age are linked to neurodegeneration later on in life, so quality sleep is key. The sleep quantity and quality matters a lot."
Dr. Dumitrascu says that mild cognitive impairment, such as decreased attention span or trouble forming new memories, may be improved by a multifaceted approach to brain stimulation—pushing the mind and the body.
"We have a lot of evidence that Alzheimer's starts at least 20 years before memory problems are manifested," she says. "I advise patients to do a combination of physical activity and brain exercises every day. The key is to challenge yourself."