This is your brain on drugs and video games

MADRID -- Part 2 of 2. Do drugs really harm the brain? Can video games really increase brainpower?
Written by Jennifer Riggins, Contributor

MADRID -- Part 2 of 2. Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought him back. The old adage speaks more about humans than kittens, as nosiness is a perfectly-human trait that may have saved our fragile species time and again. Nothing celebrates this quality more than science, research and investigation -- proving and disproving our many ideas.

"It helps people who may already have preconceived notions, [using] some common sense, even though there's some truth to them [the myths,]" says Eric DeWitt, a post-doctoral fellow at Lisbon's Champalimaud Neurosciecne Programme who is usually focused on how humans and animals make decisions. The yearning to explain the unexplained, he says, "isn't unique to us in neuroscience, but across human culture. We often want to explain our world. It's part of what has made us successful," as a species.

This sense of curiosity is what has made the Semana de la Ciencia a huge success over the last 12 years, bringing scientific thought to the public at Madrid's hospitals, museums, schools, universities, research centers, and non-profits, to name a few. DeWitt and his fellow neuroscience researchers are participating as members of Ar, a public science outreach project, which shares the goal of the Community of Madrid -- to share science with the world.

"We are trying to understand how the brain produces behavior in normal situations," DeWitt says. "As we get a better understanding of the brain, we are hoping it'll get us to understand behavior, why certain diseases occur, and how to prevent them." He, like many, describes the brain as one of the most complicated things there is to study.

While they are trying to understand and to cure with their research, these brain fans also want to sell their favorite organ to the non-scientist. "I think the public often doesn't understand what research we already have," DeWitt says. The Ar team wants "to help make people understand a little more about their world. We think it's an important part of a dialogue for scientists to have with the public."

And with that, they decided to talk about unlocking "Mysteries of the Brain" at Madrid's Science Week. Yesterday, SmartPlanet talked about the battle of left versus right brain and how many brain cells we actually use. Today, the Ar team helps us tackle two more common misconceptions about the soft, gray and white, misshapen blob inside our craniums.

Myth 3: Can games really retrain your brain?

Those that are meant to don't. Americans alone spend a billion dollars a year on computer and console brain-training games. "These games make a strong claim that if you spend ten minutes a day," you'll stave off Alzheimer's or raise your I.Q., says Irishman Scott Rennie. First, "I.Q. fluctuates over a lifetime. and it's not very clear what I.Q. means. It's not a very scientific method," he says. Secondly, the games that folks are playing -- "sudoku, tasks where you have to remember a number or a location of a number over seconds" -- "you actually can't be any better at anything, but those games," he says. Playing sports and exercising add more to your mental skills than these games.

Rennie says that 50 percent of people older than 85 will get Alzheimer's disease, making age the dominate link to its cause. However, "it seems that, by exercising your brain, this process can actually be ameliorated," Rennie says, referencing the Nun Study. This ongoing longitudinal study is with 678 School Sisters of Notre Dame, aged 75 to 106. This Catholic order agreed to be examined over their last decades and then to donate their brains to science, in order to discover "what life history aspects may contribute to their cognitive abilities over time," Rennie says. Part of their assignment was to reveal journal entries they had written when they were younger. It has been discovered that "Those that have more complex journal entries developed [symptoms of] Alzheimer's at ten percent. And those that had very simple journal entries, developed [symptoms of] Alzheimer's at 80 percent," he says. The researchers are "using writing as a proxy for language skills in general." There are, of course, other limiting factors, including genetics and life history, that could affect these results, but continuing to develop language skills could help put off Alzheimer's.

Likewise, with crossword puzzles, there are many references that doing them raises your I.Q. Rennie says that "It may help prolong your mental acuity. The problem is that, in some of these studies, it's for a very short time, and maybe they had better language skills naturally."

Surprisingly, first-person-shooter games do help the brain. They are "very fast-paced" and lead to "very good cognitive skills, increased reaction time, contrast recognition, increases in attention in general and capacity," Rennie says. "There's also evidence that they seem to be better at learning to learn. It may actually mean that playing these games can be quite beneficial." He said that, while children may have heightened emotional reactivity for the first 15 minutes after playing these games, overall, they have emotional reactivity significantly lower than kids that don't play. He cited the irony that parents yell at their kids to put down the controller and pick up a basketball, but the greater cognitive benefit could come from Halo.

Myth 4: Narcotics destroy your brain: true or false.

The last talk discussed the way your brain can go wrong and the ways in which it can recover. The constant mantra is that the brain is very flexible and adaptable. While certain diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's remain as mysterious as the organ in which they originate, if a young person has an injury and loses sight, "your brain actually rewires itself and takes over the visual system if you've gone blind,"  enhancing the senses of hearing and touch, DeWitt says. Similarly, "when a soldier has a limb amputated, the bit of the brain that was next to that limb, it actually takes over the space. It's why you can perceive that it's still there." The Ar team also shared the example of a man who is colorblind, but who has spent the last ten years wearing a camera that transmits information through vibrations, on the back of his head, so he is able to perceive color.

But what happens if the human chooses to take drugs -- will that cause irreparable damage? DeWitt says that drugs and addictions "are altering the pathways, changing your psychological experience." The brain's dopamine system helps you distinguish what's good for you and what's not. Drugs like "cocaine and cigarettes cause you to become addicted by telling your brain it's actually good for it," he says.

Young brains are better at overcoming addictions, but will still be more susceptible to addiction in the future. "Your brain is always trying to remain stable and to recover from everything that happens to you -- aging, drugs, a bang to the head, trauma," DeWitt says. "When you're young, your brain is more flexible. Because the brain, when it's very early [in development,] has a lot of plasticity and it's able to recover a lot." This means that, in the case of smoking, the older you are, the less plastic your brain is, the longer it'll take you to recover, as your brain is more adapted to nicotine's stimulation.

So the answer is no, with limitations. "Yes, your brain does recover but it recovers with limits -- it's changed by the experience," he says. "The internal memory in the brain of that addiction remains, so it's much easier to become more addicted" or addicted again.

Cartoon: Luis Gonzalez

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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