We live in a digital world. Technology is expanding in nearly every business sector. We socialize online, shop the web, communicate with friends and family in distant places via the computer, the list goes on and on. Technology has long been important to the medical industry but today we are seeing new and exciting uses for technology in medicine at a faster rate and with more exciting possibilities. Last week, we looked at the Brain Health Index and how it can predict the possibility of a stroke and early warning signs of cognitive decline. Today, we will take a look at other ways that the advances in digital technologies can help when it comes to the health of the brain.
June is Alzheimer’s and Brain Health Awareness Month. As in years past, this month is filled with special events aimed to support and advance research for Alzheimer’s as well as overall brain health. This year, one event, sponsored by the Alzheimer’s Association MA/ NH Chapter, is taking a closer look at how smart home devices may offer a solution to detecting and monitoring Alzheimer’s disease-related risk factors and symptoms well before a clinical diagnosis could be reached, while another study that began by looking at the effects of blue light has on the eyes is examining how lutein, a vitamin that has historically been linked to eye health, is helping brain health, cognition, the central nervous system and even skin.
In this digital age, where people are spending considerable time every day on electronic devices, computer vision syndrome has been shown to cause eye strain, fatigue and headaches. Embarking on what would come to be known as the Blue Light User Exposure Study, scientists had participants supplement with two carotenoids – lutein and zeaxanthin – to see if they could counteract the effects of exposure to blue light. Results showed a nearly 30% reduction in those very symptoms. But the study did not stop there; exploring the lutein benefits began to show how it helped nearby structures in the brain as well. Another study furthered the research and showed that lutein supports neural response and blood flow to specific areas of the brain in healthy older adults and that supplementation, with lutein and zeaxanthin, improves cognitive function in healthy older adults as measured by complex attention and cognitive flexibility. Subjects taking these supplements exhibited higher levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that participates in neuroplasticity — “the ability to grow and differentiate the growth of neurons,” —as well as in learning, memory and cognition.
Just as technology is working toward advances in health, it is also helpful to identify areas where technology may be harmful to the brain. In the latest revision to a disease classification manual, the World Health Organization has labeled compulsive video game playing as a new mental health condition known now as “Gaming Disorder.” While they were quick to point out that not everyone who spends hours with their gaming system is an addict, many welcomed the WHO’s new classification as a way to identify video game addicts quicker. Although the American Psychiatric Association has not yet found Gaming Disorder to be a mental health problem, they do agree with some of the findings, stating that “studies show that when some individuals are engrossed in Internet games, certain pathways in their brains are triggered in the same direct and intense way that a drug addict’s brain is affected by a particular substance. The gaming prompts a neurological response that influences feelings of pleasure and reward, and the result, in the extreme, is manifested as addictive behavior.”
As technology continues to expand, the future is certainly bright and filled with possibility to help patients with a wide range of conditions. The digital era is shaping our world, seamlessly integrating the digital sphere with the real world in ever-expanding exciting and ambitious ways.