• Brain Benefits of Beat City (Nintendo DS) by Dr Jack

    Beat City is a fun music game that might even improve your brain!

    This is a review of “Beat City” – a Nintendo DS (2D) game that I believe has all the hallmarks of something that, although designed purely for pleasure, may actually improve brain function. A recent scientific review outlined several video games that, despite being developed only with gameplay and sales in mind, were nonetheless found to improve visual perception, sustained attention, task switching, rapid option selection and several other vital aspects of cognition. With this in mind I’ve been keeping an eye out for other games that might fall into this category.

    Kids who play a musical instrument boast better language development than their peers who do not. The Einstein Aging Study found that elderly participants who regularly play a musical instrument exhibited greater cognitive reserve than those that did not – helping them keep the ravages of Alzheimer’s at bay for longer.

    The upshot is that whether you’re very old, very young or somewhere in between, not only can playing a musical instrument create a torrent of activity in your brain’s pleasure pathways, but it can also be of long term benefit for a variety of different brain areas that support several cognitive functions.

    Beat City involves travelling around a comic book stylised world on a mission to bring music back into the lives of local inhabitants – by tapping along to the beat of a variety of electronic tunes. You are the “Synchroniser,” a brave inhabitant of Beat City who is hell-bent on freeing his fellow citizens from their banal tuneless existence. En route you encounter several bizarre characters with whom you must do battle by tapping, swiping and holding the beat in time to music of varying complexity. Although upon first appearances it may seem to be aimed at younger audiences, this game gets tough – tough enough to provide even those naturally musical people out there (even my girlfriend who reached grade 8 in three different musical instruments!) with a challenge as you progress through harder and harder levels.

    For the rest of us even the early levels can prove quite taxing. Hitting a rich vein of form is rewarded with a visual technicolour treat. The muted greys of Beat City are yanked out of their dreary and monotonous existence by your beat perfect music making, with the screen springing into life with a vivid burst of colour (and the characters ending up wearing increasingly bizarre fancy dress outfits.)

    Sounds that reach the ears are split up into different frequencies on the upper temporal lobe’s upper surfaces and then passed on to adjacent areas for further analysis

    Reproducing a beat with accurate timing taxes a fair few different brain areas. The auditory cortex – distributed predominantly across the upper level of the temporal lobes (see diagram on the right) – crunches the soundwaves into what we actually hear through a division of labour across different patches of brain cortex which each extract different types of information. Firstly, the sound is separated out into its different frequencies at the cochlea in the inner ear and ferried to the primary auditory cortex (shown inset on the right).  Some specialist areas are involved in establishing the rhythm.  Others find and create the perception of melody. Functional units residing predominantly in left side of most people’s brain will extract the meaning from words in a song. Others, mainly in the right half of the brain, extract the emotional tone of the music. Then there are the brain areas involved in tapping along to the beat: pre-motor regions of the frontal cortex plan the movements and the motor strip triggers them. In order to get the timing just right, the cerebellum – hanging off the back of the brain – finesses the signal on its journey from brain to finger muscles to ensure that the stylus hits the touch screen precisely in time with the beat as opposed to a little too early or late. In Beat City, the accuracy with which you time each tap is indicated on screen by the size and colour of a musical note.

    Tapping to the rhythm increases communication between brain areas involved in beat perception and rhythmical movement

    To recap: different brain areas simultaneously extract different features from the sounds that reach the ear to creates sense of hearing in our everyday lives. Patterns in the sound are automatically extracted and we naturally anticipate when the next sound is likely to occur, enabling us to synchronise our actions according to the patterns in the sounds. This instinctive impact of rhythmical sound on movement is where the urge to dance comes from.

    Clapping, singing or playing a musical instrument requires different cognitive functions to operate simultaneously and interactively. Having to listen to, follow the rhythm of and anticipate changes in a musical score in order to producing carefully coordinated finger, hand (and for wind instruments: also mouth and respiratory tract) movements is a highly cognitively demanding task. Growth of extra connections (and therefore increased efficiency) in brain areas involved in perceiving sounds and producing accurately timed, precise, carefully coordinated movements are just the front and back ends of the brain workout.

    In addition, prefrontal brain areas responsible for working memory, anticipation, vigilance, error correction and many other cognitive functions are also put through their paces by virtue of having to ensure that the two processes are properly integrated.

    At the end of the day even if Beat City doesn’t inspire the desire to play a proper musical instrument, enabling the full brain-benefits of musical engagement to be earned, I believe it is nonetheless an effective way of challenging and thus improve your capacity for working memory, concentration and fine motor control that will come in useful in everyday life as well.

    In addition to these brain posts you can catch my daily #braintweet by following me on Twitter.

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  • Crash course in brain anatomy anyone?

    The terminology associated with brain anatomy can seem intimidating to the uninitiated, but really there’s no need to be intimidated.

    A pair of cartoon rodents (Pinky and the Brain) managed to get their heads around it and so will you.

    Here’s their quick guided tour to the different parts of the human brain.

    It’s a shame they don’t really mention the role of each area they name.

    I guess that would have made making the lyrics rhyme even more complicated!

    To supplement their guide to neuroanatomy (what bit is where) I’ve given a quick overview of what each bit does in the order they’re covered in the cartoon:
     

     

    1) Neocortex – the whole large sheet of brain cells on the brain’s outer surface, folded up into the skull giving it the appearance of a walnut.

    2) Frontal lobe – the region of the neocortex at the front of the brain, behind the forehead, which is much larger in humans than our monkey cousins and enables us to do all those complex functions that other primates cannot.

    3) Brainstem – the part of the brain that ninja assasins aim for with their deadly chop where neck meets skull, it is involved in coordinating all the vital bodily functions that keep us alive e.g. breathing and heart rates.

    4) Hippocampus – key brain area at the core of the temporal lobes (which run horizontally down the sides of the head from the temple to behind the ears) which is heavily involved in not just creating, but also retrieving memories. It also creates new brain cells in response to exercise!

    5) Neural node – erm, I think they just needed something sciency sounding to rhyme with the other lines. The image THE BRAIN enlarges with the magnifying glass is a single brain cell complete with nucleus (which contains all the DNA) at it’s centre, the dendrites (receiving information from other brain cells) plus a single axon (along which electrical messages are sent to other brain cells).

    6) Right hemisphere – the left and right sides of the neocortex are separated by a fluid filled gap yet are connected by a massive bundle of neuronal connections called the corpus callosum that bridge the gap enabling left and right sides to send and receive information between them.

    7) Pons – All of the commands travelling from parts of the neocortex involved in motor control (i.e. body movements) pass through the pons which sits on top of the brainstem which is at the very top of the spinal cord through which the brain controls all the muscles of the body.

    8) Cortex visual, usually referred to as the visual cortex, sits right at the back of the brain. So the eyes quite literally detect light striking the retina, at the back of the eyeball, and send this information all the way to the back of the brain before we can see anything!

    9) Pineal, usually referred to as the pineal gland, is about the size of a grain of rice and produces melatonin which regulates the sleep/wake cycle. Daylight in the morning switches off melatonin production to make us feel awake, switching production back on in the evening so we can sleep.

    10) Cerebellum left and right, critical for balance and co-ordinated muscle contractions important for effective speech, walking, running, swimming and all sporting activities etc.

    11) Synapse – the gap between one neuron and the next. Electrical signals arriving at the end of one neuron releases tiny packets of brain chemicals that travel across the synapse, bind with special receptors on the other neuron to trigger or inhibit electrical signals its own electrical messages.

    12) Hypothalamus – the most important site of hormone production and release that powerfully regulates innumerable body and brain functions.

    13) Striate, a. k. a. striatum – enormously important subcortical brain area (deep in the brain not on the surface of the neocortex) involved in reward and motivation, planning and modulation of movements, named thus due to its stripy appearance.

    14) Axon fibres – as mentioned before this is the part of the brain cell that sends electrical messages to other brain cells.

    15) Matter grey, usually know as the famous Grey Matter. This is darker than the white matter as this is where all the synapses and cell bodies are. So it is in the grey matter that all the computational power of the brain is unleashed.

    16) Central tegmental pathway: the tegmentum is a part of the midbrain – which lies between the striatum and the brain stem. Activation of the ventral tegmental area, i.e. the “belly” of the tegmentum, causes the feelings of intense pleasure when people eat, drink, have sex or take drugs.

    17) Temporal lobe – the upper surface of the temporal lobes is the part of the brain we hear with.

    18) White core matter, usually referred to as White Matter, consists of millions and millions of axonal fibres that ferrying electrical signals from one brain area to the next.

    19) Forebrain – we’ve done that already

    20) Skull – the bone in which our brain is cradled

    21) Central fissure – the name for the fluid filled gap described earlier which separates the left and right hemispheres

    22) Cord spinal, usually known as the spinal cord, through which axons pass sending messages from brain to body and body to brain.

    23) Parietal – one of the lobes of the neocortex – involved in spatial awareness, focusing attention and mathematical calculations.

    24) Pia mater – is the innermost of the three brain sacks (or meninges) which cushion and protect the brain.

    25) Meningeal vein – blood vessels taking waste materials away from the outer parts of the neocortex.

    26) Medulla oblongata – lower part of the brain stem, also involved in triggering reflexes like vomiting, sneezing, coughing etc.

    27) Lobe limbic – usually known as limbic system, deep inside brain beneath the temporal lobes, involved in generating emotions.

    28) Microelectrodes – there is not a microelectrode in sight so just ignore that lyric!

    In addition to these monthly brain posts you can follow me on Twitter for my thrice daily #braintweet.

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