Stretching Your Way to Better Executive Function?

If you are looking to exercise both your body and your mind, then you may be interested in some new research conducted at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Neha Gothe, a graduate student at Illinois who is now a professor of kinesiology at Wayne State University, led a research team to uncover data that shows a 20-minute session of hatha yoga significantly improved participants’ speed and accuracy on tests of working memory and inhibitory control. Participants showed significantly better results on these tests of retention of new information after a yoga session than after completing a moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise.

Participants underwent a 20-minute progression of seated, standing, and supine yoga postures, concluding with a meditative posture and deep breathing. They also completed a 20-minute aerobic exercise where they walked or jogged on a treadmill for 20 minutes, with each subject maintaining 60 to 70 percent of her maximum heart rate throughout the workout. All subjects in the study were female undergraduates. No significant improvements in working memory or inhibitory control were found after the aerobic exercise.

Researchers believe that following a yoga practice, participants were better able to focus because the breathing and meditation exercises aim to calm the mind and body, possibly translating into better mental performance beyond the yoga practice. Furthermore, meditation and breathing exercises are known to reduce anxiety and stress, which may help improve scores on some cognitive tests.

The full study is available in the May issue of the Journal of Physical Activity and Health.

Learn About Procrastination: Don’t Put It Off!

When an important task requires your attention, do you get right to it or do you put it off? When you’re faced with a paper to write, a report to review, or a memo that needs a detailed response, does the laundry—or the latest YouTube video—suddenly emerge as a more interesting alternative? Procrastination is an occasional challenge for many of us. But chronic procrastination can be a real problem for students, significantly affecting their academic success.

In a study published recently in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology*, authors Laura Rabin, Joshua Fogel, and Katherine Nutter-Upham look at procrastination and its connection to the self-regulatory processes that make up executive function.

Dr. Rabin and her colleagues examined nine clinical subscales of the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Functioning–Adult Version (BRIEF-A) in a sample of more than 200 college students. These subscales include measures of impulsivity, self-monitoring, planning and organizing, ability to “shift” behavior or mindset when necessary, initiative, task monitoring, emotional control, working memory, and organization of materials. The authors found that all nine of the clinical subscales measured by the BRIEF-A showed a significant correlation with higher academic procrastination.

What can be done to help students whose procrastination is hindering their success? In his Psychology Today blog “Don’t Delay: Understanding Procrastination” (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/dont-delay), Timothy A. Pychyl describes implications of the Rabin, Fogel, and Nutter-Upham study, summarizing some key strategies for students who struggle with procrastination. They include:

  • setting proximal sub-goals along with reasonable expectations about the amount of effort required to complete a given task;
  • using contracts for periodic work completion;
  • requiring weekly or repeated quizzes until topic mastery has been achieved;
  • using short assignments that build on one another with regular deadlines and feedback;
  • focusing on the problem of “giving in to feeling good” by developing an awareness of the problem and its subversive effects on achievement;
  • developing volitional skills, such as managing intrusive negative emotions and controlling impulses;
  • establishing fixed daily routines;
  • blocking access to short-term temptations and distractions such as social media; and
  • using peer monitoring and self-appraisal methods to improve academic conscientiousness.

Pychyl’s blog includes a podcast interview with Laura Rabin in which she describes how a neuropsychological perspective can inform our understanding of the role of executive function in procrastination. To listen to Dr. Rabin’s interview now, click on http://iprocrastinate.libsyn.com/a-neuropsychological-perspective-on-procrastination.

To learn more about how the BRIEF measures executive function, visit the PAR Web site (www.parinc.com) and navigate to the BRIEF product page.

*Rabin, L. A., Fogel, J., & Nutter-Upham, K. E. (2011). Academic procrastination in college students: The role of self-reported executive function. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 33, 344-357.

Meet the Author: Robert M. Roth, Ph.D.

1. Why did you choose to enter the field of psychology?

I was 8 years old when I decided that I wanted to be a psychologist. I had come across a series of books my sister had about human nature in which the term was often mentioned. While I did not really understand what being a psychologist meant at the time, things in the books such as pictures of the brain and visual illusions made a lasting impression on me. During high school I developed an interest in the etiology and treatment of substance abuse in adolescents. While my career path eventually led largely away from that topic, it cemented my dedication to a career in psychology.

 2. What made you decide initially to develop the TEC?

During the development of the BRIEF-A, Peter Isquith, Gerry Gioia, and I had engaged in discussions about assessment and functional neuroimaging of executive functions. We became interested in the idea of developing an instrument that would involve executive function tasks often used in neuroimaging studies but that had not been standardized for use as a clinical measure.

 3. What would you like to tell people about the TEC that they may not know?

It took 7 years from the initial discussion about developing a new measure to publication of the TEC. A great deal of time was spent developing the measure, trying different parameters, selecting stimuli, making other adjustments and changes to the task and reports based on pilot testing, analyzing data, and writing and editing the manual. It was a true labor of love.

 4. What would you like to tell people about yourself that they may not know?

I have been studying executive functions, using a variety of methods (neuropsychological measures, ERPs, fMRI, questionnaires) for the past 20 years. I love writing and mentoring scientific papers. I am a trilingual Canadian from Montreal Quebec who speaks English, French, and Hungarian (the latter being my parents’ native language).

 5. How do you spend your free time? (hobbies, books are you reading, movies you enjoy, pets, etc.)

I most enjoy spending time with my two sons and other family members. Other than that, reading history and historical fiction related to Europe, tourism, watching movies (lots of kid-friendly fare, but also romantic comedies and sci-fi, as well as just about anything that has to do with historical events pre-1919), listening to hard rock and heavy metal music, and following the National Hockey League (go Habs!).

Meet the Author: Peter K. Isquith, PhD

Why did you choose to enter the field of psychology?
As the brother of a deaf individual with developmental disabilities, I was intimately familiar with the needs of such individuals, their families, and their educators, and well aware of the paucity of services. I studied speech and hearing sciences/psychology at the University of Michigan and found myself fitting well in psychology. While working as an interpreter, interpreting everything from astrophysics to rock climbing and sailing to the courtroom, I interpreted for a psychological assessment, and quickly realized how much the interpreting process interfered with the assessment. After spending the next few years traveling with a theater of the deaf where I worked with children around the country, I decided that a doctorate in psychology would enable me to have the greatest flexibility in pursuing my goals of serving the needs of deaf children and individuals with disabilities. The program in Child Clinical Psychology and Law at the University at Buffalo was very well-suited to my goals.

What made you decide initially to develop the Tasks of Executive Control™ (TEC™)?
My colleagues and I had long been interested in executive functions from a developmental perspective. Given the challenges inherent in assessing these self-regulatory processes, we previously focused on ecological validity, resulting in the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function® (BRIEF®) family of instruments. We were also aware of the “molar,” or composite, nature of our extant performance tests of executive function, and sought a means of capturing the most fundamental aspects of executive function, namely working memory and inhibitory control, in a developmentally sensitive, easily administered, and repeatable way that took advantage of recent development in neuroscience. Some six or seven years later, the Tasks of Executive Control was launched.

What would you like to tell people about the TEC that they may not know?
The TEC is unique. It brings established neuroscience methods to clinical assessment to facilitate evaluation of how students cognitively manage increasing demands on working memory and inhibitory control over a more naturalistic, extended time period. We took advantage of current statistical methods for evaluating change over time, both within and between TEC administrations, and provided an abundance of measures that psychologists can examine. While the learning curve is likely steep given the newness of the measure and concepts, we believe it is worth the climb.

What would you like to tell people about yourself that they may not know?
I am a full-time clinician with specialty in pediatric neuropsychology, working in an independent practice and in schools. The ideas for assessment approaches come from my own clinical work and that of my colleagues. In this way, I am an “accidental” test author. Developing measures with my colleagues in practice and with PAR, Inc. has been very rewarding work.

How do you spend your free time?
Most of my free time is spent with my family, typically coaching my daughters through homework and attending their soccer, basketball, and softball games or coaching skiing. The only exception is Monday nights when I relive my youth and play bass in a rock band.

Meet the MMSE & MMSE-2 Authors: Marshal F. Folstein, MD & Susan E. Folstein, MD

What made you decide initially to develop the Mini-Mental® State Examination (MMSE)?

We developed the MMSE to solve a clinical problem on a geriatric psychiatric inpatient service. The diagnoses of patients on our unit included depression, dementia, delirium, and occasional late-life schizophrenia. We needed a practical quantitative cognitive exam in order to aide clinicians in determining the severity of cognitive impairment ranging from mild to severe and to document improvement or decline.

At the time, Susan was a psychiatry resident rotating on the geriatric psychiatric unit where I (Marshal) was a junior attending. Always a perfectionist, she was not happy when I repeatedly asked for cognitive information that she had not asked about. So she asked me to write down all the items that I wanted her to include.

What made you decide to update it and create the Mini-Mental® State Examination, Second Edition™ (MMSE®-2™)?

Over the years, students and other users made many suggestions about how to improve the MMSE. There was a need to clarify the instructions so that certain tasks were administered; there was a need for phrases that were more easily translated into other languages; and users requested multiple forms in order to minimize practice effects with serial administration. In addition, we had long wanted to develop a shorter version that could be given very quickly in busy clinical settings, and also a longer version that would eliminate ceiling effects. We wanted this longer version to be more sensitive than the original MMSE to disorders of executive function and to the kinds of memory impairment found in mild cognitive impairment.

What would you like to tell people about the MMSE-2 that they may not know?

The MMSE-2 Standard Version scores are equivalent to the original MMSE scores. We took care that subjects tested during development scored the same, regardless of whether they were given the original MMSE or the MMSE-2 Standard Version. Longitudinal studies currently underway can switch to the new version without any adjustment to scores. The original, unrevised MMSE is still available if users do not want to change to the revised versions.

How do you spend your free time?

Marshal takes flute lessons and is trying to improve his photography. Susan enjoys gardening and reading spy novels, biographies, Jane Austen, and Patrick O’Brian. She has a new job at the University of Miami School of Medicine with a joint appointment in psychiatry and in the Hussman Institute for Human Genomics. We both like to write and watch old movies.

Screen for cognitive impairment with a revised version of the most widely used cognitive status exam...