Handwriting helps the brain

Writing by hand is good for the brain, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Using advanced tools such as magnetic resonance imaging, researchers are finding that writing by hand is more than just a way to communicate. The practice helps with learning letters and shapes, can improve idea composition and expression, and may aid fine motor-skill development.

. . . Some physicians say handwriting could be a good cognitive exercise for baby boomers working to keep their minds sharp as they age.

“New software for touch-screen devices, such as the iPad, is starting to reinvigorate” handwriting.

I fill in crossword puzzles by hand, so maybe I’m getting an anti-Alzheimer’s twofer.

Motherhood also leads to brain growth, a study finds. New moms who gush the most about their baby’s wonderfulness show the most growth in brain cells.

Brain training fizzles in Britain

Computer-based brain training doesn’t improve cognitive skills, concludes a large study published in Nature. The study involved healthy adult viewers of a BBC science program. From the Wall Street Journal:

One group took part in online games aimed at improving skills linked to general intelligence, such as reasoning, problem-solving and planning. A second test group did exercises to boost short-term memory, attention and mathematical and visual-spatial skills—functions typically targeted by commercial brain-training programs. A third “control group” was asked to browse the Internet and seek out answers to general knowledge questions.

The conclusion: Those who did the brain-training exercises improved in the specific tasks that they practiced. However, their improvement was generally no greater than the gains made by the control group surfing the Internet. And none of the groups showed evidence of improvement in cognitive skills that weren’t specifically used in their tasks.

Critics say the brain workouts were too brief –  10 minutes a day, three times a day, for six weeks — to make a difference.

Modest benefits to cognitive abilities have been reported in studies of older people, preschool children and videogame players, the study’s authors say.

Your brain on books

The New Yorker plugs Stanislas Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention.

Reading builds brain connectivity

Intensive reading practice can change a child’s brain, according to a study published in Neuron.  Several programs “improved the integrity of fibers that carry information from one part of the brain to another,” reports NPR.

Some parts recognize letters, others apply knowledge about vocabulary and syntax, and still others decide what it all means. To synchronize all these operations, the brain relies on high speed “highways” that carry information back and forth, (Marcel Just, director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon) says.

Using a MRI, Just and colleague Timothy Keller found children 8 to 12 years old with poor reading skills had lower-quality white matter compared to typical readers. Some of the poor readers  were given 100 hours of remedial reading instruction.

When they were done, a second set of MRI scans showed that the training changed “not just their reading ability, but the tissues in their brain,” Just says. The integrity of their white matter improved, while it was unchanged for children in standard classes.

Equally striking, Just says: “The amount of improvement in the white matter in an individual was correlated with that individual’s improvement in his reading ability.”

The reading instruction focused on “decoding unfamiliar words,” reports UPI.