This Blog is part of our “Get to Know Our Ambassadors” Series. Each week, we’ll highlight a new Ambassador to help students understand more about the diversity of people and research projects available to students.

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Have you wanted to really do well on a test or wish you could remember the right answer to impress your teacher or friends? When I was in kindergarten, I remember wishing I had Popeye’s spinach in such moments. My brother and I used to watch a cartoon called ‘Popeye the sailor man’. We would ask our parents to buy us his spinach to become super strong – so I could also impress in class! Once I grew up, I learnt that there was a set of core brain skills called cognitive skills which was responsible for memory recall and reaction time, which can improve.

For instance, have you wondered how you process to stop when you see a red traffic light? Move when a green light appears? Follow Google Map directions? How you can recall someone’s name or recall content for a test?

The answer lies in a set of superfast brain skills which keeps working every second in our brain, even now as you read this. They are called cognitive skills. It helps us to think, analyse, reason and use language or information inside our memory bank to interact with our environment. Objectively, doctors assess cognition by testing how well we:

• Remember information
• Pay attention
• Use language
• Make judgments from information
• React appropriately

Our cognitive skills are extremely valuable for us to interact with our environment appropriately. If we don’t give it the right love and care, it slows down. Sometimes it acts slower or makes mistakes it usually would not e.g. when we have not slept well, when very ill and when we lack nutrition in our diet. I suspect Popeye knew a thing or two when he ate spinach! In some people ageing slows it.

I research how lack of sleep affects the body particularly in a sleep breathing problem called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). The breathing difficulty stops the brain from having full sleep cycles. It makes a person snore and feel like they have not slept well, even if they have been lying in bed for eight hours. I do sleep studies on a sleeping patient which collects brain, heart, muscle and breathing data from wires on their head and body. The data is assessed with memory tests and reaction times on a computer using statistics. We see insufficient sleep makes these patients make more mistakes on tests, inattentive, react wrongly or are slow to recall memory.

Various reasons can underlie to why our cognitive skills may not be as fast or sharp as they should be, and most often we can troubleshoot and fix it. You can take care of it by having a good night’s sleep, eating healthy and exercising the body and the brain (like solving puzzles).
I’m paired with the game Graze Invaders that helps you test some of your cognitive skills like reaction time and memory. The game design wants you to react quickly to save cows from abduction, or to not react if it’s a mutant cow! It will also test how well you recall from memory. This is similar to a cognitive test, so how well you perform will determine if the planet can still have dairy supplies from cows!

Come play and test how sharp your cognitive skills are today!

Written by Amal Dameer

Amal is a sleep scientist at RMIT University and a medical doctor in the Victorian health system. She is co-chair of the Respiratory Council in the Australasian Sleep Association. Her research focus is on sleep health and its contribution to our everyday health, well-being and disease.