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Wednesday, November 15, 2017
What is the best time of day to study?- AT NIGHT! | Brainscape Blog
Until recently the main chemical cognitive enhancer most people used was caffeine. But there are a whole batch of new drugs that could challenge caffeine’s dominance as the safe stimulant of choice. Of these, two well-known for their ‘off-label’ use are Modafinil (also known as Provigil) and Ritalin.
Modafinil was originally developed to treat narcolepsy, but is now used by many people as a cognitive enhancer.Studies reported by theAcademy of Medical Scienceshave shown that Provigil does indeed improve aspects of memory: mainly verbal working memory, planning performance, working memory and executive inhibitory control (ability to stay on-task).
Other important aspects of cognitive function such as attention, however, were not affected by Modafinil.This studyfound Modafinil did not enhance spatial memory span, rapid visual information processing or attentional set-shifting.This studyalso found that Modafinil did not enhance attention.
The reason many use Modafinil is that it doesn’t seem to have any short- or long-term side-effects and it is not addictive (although it’s lack of side-effects may well have been exaggerated). For example it doesn’t increase blood-pressure or heart-rate, as caffeine does. It may give you a headache, though, just like caffeine.
Ritalin was originally developed to treat ADHD yet adults have begun using it as a cognitive enhancer. It seems to work best in young people, enhancing spatial working memory and cognitive flexibility. Effects on other aspects of cognition such as verbal learning and long-term memory are relatively small.
In most people Ritalin tends to improve mood, increase activity and arousal, but it’s effects are more varied and can include anxiety, tiredness and lowered mood.
Verdict:Amongst the chemical cognitive enhancers Modafinil is currently fashionable for grown-ups. But is it really that much better than caffeine?This studyandthis studysuggest that in warding off sleep Modafinil is no more effective than caffeine – and caffeine is legal and readily available. Probably better to stick to tea or coffee.
3. Nutritional supplements
There are all kinds of claims for the abilities of nutritional supplements to enhance cognition. For example, vitamin B6 has been found to enhance memory (but far from conclusively) and there are many other claims being made by marketers for vitamins E, B12, folate, neurosteroids and so on.
However, in reviewing the research theAcademy of Medical Sciencespoints out that most of the studies are few, far between and small in scope.
Verdict: Unproven, but probably not dangerous as long as you’re not exceeding the recommended daily allowances. On the downside supplements can be costly.
Meditation, like nutritional supplements, is another modern cure-all, but what does the evidence tell us about its effect on cognitive function? A forthcomingreview of the researchpublished in theAnnals of the New York Academy of Scienceslooks at the effects of meditation on cognitive function.
There is some limited evidence that meditation can benefit cognitive function overall, and memory in particular. But this research is at a very early stage and needs to be replicated by different researchers.
A major problem in this research is the fact that there are many different types of meditation. It might be that there is some kind of common active ingredient in meditation, but this has yet to be identified.
Verdict:Meditation still has to be considered unproven as a cognitive enhancer but it probably won’t do you any harm, plus it’s free.
Whether you’re old or young, fit or even suffering from a neurodegenerative disorder, aerobic exercise has been found to be beneficial for cognitive health. Randomised controlled trials, along with reviews of many of these trials (such asthis oneinNeuromolecular Medicine), have shown that exercise improves cognitive function across the board. It has also been found to be particularly good at enhancing executive control processes (e.g. planning and working memory).
Exercise is also thought to encourage the growth of new brain cells. In the past scientists always thought that neurogenesis – growing new brain cells – was impossible in humans. New studies, though, have shown that we can grow new brain cells.
Researchreviewed inNeuromolecular Medicinesuggests physical exercise can promote neurogenesis in the hippocampus – an area of the brain thought to be important in memory and learning.
Verdict:The evidence for exercise boosting cognitive function is head-and-shoulders above that for brain training, drugs, nutritional supplements and meditation. Scientifically, on the current evidence, exercise is the best way to enhance your cognitive function. And as for its side-effects: yes there is the chance of an injury but exercise can also reduce weight, lower the chance of dementia, improve mood and lead to a longer life-span. Damn those side-effects!
The results are in (for now)
Even though exercise is the current winner for enhancing cognition, this might change in the future. Maybe better drugs for enhancing brain function will be developed – possibly en route to improved treatments for conditions like Alzheimer’s. Or maybe studies on nutritional supplements, brain training software or particular forms of meditation may provide firmer evidence.
On current evidence exercise is clearly the best method for increasing useful everyday cognitive functioning. And in the future we may even have exercise regimes that are specifically targeted at enhancing cognitive function.
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