How often should you test your brain function?

Frequency of testing brain function can be analogous to weighing yourself.

The question of how frequently someone should test themselves (or be tested by a clinician) with the Brain Gauge comes up quite often. The short answer: it depends on the reason that you are testing. Many people are doing things to make their brain function better. This is a bit like doing things to lose weight. If you are on a diet and trying to lose weight by increasing physical activity as well as cutting back on the calories, then you probably won’t want to weigh yourself much more than once a week. But if you have a bit of the experimentalist in you, you might want to weigh yourself before and after some type of strenuous activity. I used to weigh myself before and after long workouts just for fun and thought it was interesting to see how much water loss there was. Water weighs 8 lbs per gallon and quick math would tell you how many gallons you need to replace. Of course, knowing that I lost 10-15 lbs over the course of several hours (I used to do some fairly long workouts and/or competitions) did not always lead me to doing the right thing for recovery (some water, but always followed with something a bit more fun and certainly less healthy). The point of this is that knowing the weight loss gives you a sense of how much something has changed and directs your future actions.

Using the Brain Gauge can be thought of in a similar fashion. You might be looking for a long-term improvement – similar to long term weight loss – and measure yourself once a week to see if whatever you are doing is in fact improving your scores. Measuring yourself multiple times a day for this application is probably not necessary, and if you do that, you still want to look at long term trends. We have observed many uses of the Brain Gauge over multiple time scales. Some examples of these applications are described below.

A lot of Brain Gauge users like to evaluate the effects of different nootropics by testing themselves before and after ingesting substances that enhance performance. Caffeine is a good example of this – anyone who depends on their morning dose is aware of what it does to performance. Of course, what you might not be aware of is that there is an optimal tuning curve (see post here) and that too much of a good thing might not be a good idea. Testing before and after caffeine takes effect is a good example of testing on a short-term time scale (can read more about testing effects of caffeine here). Another example of relatively short-term testing is exercise. Short duration exercise has positive effects on brain function scores. Long term exercise has an overall positive impact on brain health as well (you can read about impact of acute and long-term exercise here) but testing for that is more like weighing yourself when you are trying to lose weight – you can test less often to capture the long-term trend.

Some Brain Gauge users simply want to evaluate how different pharmaceuticals not related to brain health are impacting their scores. For example, beta blockers are commonly prescribed for cardiovascular health (especially in the aging population) and these have been demonstrated to decrease brain plasticity. While the most prominent effect of the drug might be long-term, there could be short-term effects of the drug as well, and testing before and after drug application would give you an idea of its immediate and long-term impact.

A number of Brain Gauge users use the device to track recovery from concussion. Impact of concussion can be long-lasting, and while there are usually significant improvements in the first 6-7 days post-concussion, many of the subtle deficits linger much longer and it is important to avoid a second concussion until the effects of the first one are minimized (more reading on concussions here and here).

Diet can have a pronounced effect on brain health, and these changes can happen over many different timescales. You will see differences testing yourself before and after a large meal (most likely a mildly negative one, especially if alcohol was consumed) and you will see positive effects from fasting on a moderate scale (too much fasting can have obvious negative side effects). Eating large amounts of specific foods can have an impact on brain health, and the time scales that these act on can be as varied as our wide selection of food and drink. There can be a nearly immediate effect (such as kava), or the effect can occur on a longer time scale (see walnut post).

Clinicians often test patients before and after treatment. The timescale of this varies. For example, some neck injuries present as concussion, and chiropractic adjustment often restores the flow of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) immediately which results in decrease in symptoms, and the Brain Gauge test results from these patients are much better after the adjustment than they were before. On the other hand, other interventions, such as pharmaceuticals, for a wide range of neurological problems, may take much longer and positive results might not be evident for days or even weeks.
Treating pain with pharmaceuticals is common, and with some drugs the pain is decreased almost immediately. Brain Gauge scores on that application, however, often show improvement in some function and degradation in others.

Some basic science studies, which target different mechanisms of information processing, often only utilize one or two of the Brain Gauge metrics. The test is repeatedly given over a relatively short time frame (e.g., a 2 minute test multiple times during a 45 minute test session) while some type of manipulation or intervention is being done to the individual. This includes short term effects of drugs (one example of this type of study is here) and application of TMS or tDCS directly to the cortex to enhance or turn off a particular brain mechanism.

There are also studies that have no time scale involved that compare different populations. These studies look at neurological differences between healthy people and people with some type of neurological disorder or insult. These studies include drinking behavior, autism, ADHD, OCD, Tourette’s, traumatic brain injury, sleep disorders, chronic pain and degenerative disorders (such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s) studies. In these research studies, individuals with different disorders are tested and their scores are compared to scores obtained from healthy controls. The results from those studies are used to identify different types of deficits in the central nervous system, and these research studies often provide the foundation for developing treatments.

The bottom line is that testing frequency depends on your application and whether or not you are looking for long-term or short-term changes in brain function. The best guideline is to optimize your testing strategy for your brain health goal. And have fun experimenting!

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