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Building Better Brains: Step To It

Based on the post “11 Steps to a Better Brain” by Steve Graham on SteveGraham.org, about a New Scientist article of the same name

Edited Article and Commentary by Dr. Don Rose, Writer, Life Alert

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Elsewhere on this Life Alert website, we posted an article about brain exercises to keep the ole noggin in shape. Below is another article with ideas to aid your brain in multiple ways. While a medical alarm like the one made by Life Alert lets elderly subscribers feel secure living alone, helping them remain in their own homes years longer than they may have done otherwise, one still has to function well during one’s home life; taking control of your brain – making decisions about your decision-making organ – is essential to doing that. This info-packed article addresses the task of maintaining one’s mental health. If they sound sensible to you, you may want to try some of the steps below, or even all eleven.  You might find that one or more of these ideas not only supports your mental machinery and keeps it running smoothly, but perhaps even improves it. --Dr. Don Rose

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Introduction

This piece presents a condensation of, and commentary on, ideas presented in a post on SteveGraham.org, originally detailed in an article by New Scientist -- 11 steps to a better brain. The New Scientist article argues that one can always “improve and expand” one’s mind, a process that doesn't require “studying hard or becoming a reclusive book worm”. Their article shares “tricks, techniques and habits, as well as changes to your lifestyle, diet and behavior” to “get the best out of your brain cells”.

Investigating methods for brain improvement is a worthy goal, indeed – especially for seniors, the age group with the greatest propensity for memory loss and impaired mental function.

Drugs for smarts, sharpness, staying awake and modifying memory

The New Scientist article mentions how, around age 40, many start noticing changes in mental ability, the beginning of a decline that, in some, may lead to dementia. However, science is on the verge of being able to reduce these negative effects, slow their onset, and even reverse this process. A few drugs (“cognitive enhancers”) are already on the market, with many more on the horizon.

“Modafinil” is a drug to treat narcolepsy, the condition that causes people to suddenly fall asleep, but healthy folks can apparently benefit from it as well; the drug can keep you awake and alert for 90 hours, without jitteriness or concentration issues. In fact, sleep-deprived modafinil users can perform better than their “well-rested, unmedicated selves”. Research has found that one can stay awake for 40 hours, sleep 8 hours, and then stay up another long period without problems. As you might guess, many prescriptions for modafinil are now written to keep normal folks awake, not treat narcolepsy - just as some use Ritalin not to treat attention deficit or other disorders but to improve concentration.

Drugs have also been designed to enhance that most ephemeral of entities: memory. Some seem to work, without major side effects. However, Daniele Piomelli of UC Irvine, whose work involves “making memories less emotionally charged” for those with post-traumatic stress, warns that memory meddling may have unwanted effects, such as “remembering things we don't want to”.

I wonder if a related state may also be possible, an “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” scenario for blocking unwanted memories - perhaps via one or more drugs.

Also expressing concern is UC Irvine’s Gary Lynch, “inventor of ampakines, a class of drugs that changes the rules about how a memory is encoded and how strong a memory trace is” (see New Scientist). If these rules were “optimized by evolution” via natural selection over eons, creating the best ways to regulate man’s memory, then “[w]hat looks to be an improvement could have hidden downsides”. Still, Lynch says his invention “acts only in the brain” and was “shown to restore function to severely sleep-deprived monkeys that would otherwise perform poorly”. Human studies also show promise.

The evolution argument above strikes me as a powerful one. Memory seems to be such a complex, subtle process, within our body’s most complex and vital organ. The more complex an organ is, the more likely its evolved function has indeed been optimized by natural selection, with risks in meddling with it. I personally doubt most people will want to manipulate memory in specific ways (like the “Eternal Sunshine” scenario or related states) unless they absolutely have to, given the possibility of side effects. However, the general improvement of overall mental performance and endurance is another story; drugs to achieve it are already here, and many appear to have few or no side effects. With so many points on the plus side, the ability to make seniors perform like their juniors may be too tempting an apple not to bite. Speaking of apples...

Good food sets the mood for improved aptitude

Brains have specific dietary needs. Thus, it is not surprising that what you eat can affect how you think. Taking vitamins and following brain-boosting diets can help. At the very least, we should develop beneficial eating habits to keep our brains healthy. The New Scientist article presented some ideas on this front, for a typical day of meals.

First, eat breakfast. The brain needs a steady supply of glucose, and many studies show that skipping breakfast reduces performance. Focus on “good” calories; research shows kids breakfasting on soft drinks and sugary snacks performed at the level of a 70-year-old in tests of memory and attention. Beans on toast, for example, make a better combination. Even toast alone boosted kids’ scores on cognitive tests, but when tests got tougher, breakfast with high-protein beans worked best. Beans are also a good source of fiber; other research has shown a link between a high-fiber diet and improved cognition.

Omelettes and salads? Optimal lunches. Eggs are rich in choline, which the body uses to produce the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. Researchers found that blocking acetylcholine receptors in the brain reduced the ability to remember word pairs. Low levels of acetylcholine are also associated with Alzheimer's, and some studies suggest that boosting dietary intake may slow age-related memory loss. A salad with antioxidants beta-carotene and vitamins C and E helps aging brains mop up damaging free radicals. U.C. Irvine researchers found that a diet high in antioxidants improved cognitive skill for aging beagles. End lunch with yogurt; it contains the amino acid tyrosine, needed for production of the neurotransmitters dopamine and noradrenalin, and others. Studies show tyrosine gets used up when stress rises; supplementing intake aids alertness and memory.

Snack mid-afternoon, to maintain glucose levels. Avoid junk food, especially highly processed foods (cakes, etc.) with trans-fatty acids. These add pounds and have been linked to mental disorders, such as dyslexia, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and autism. Rats and mice raised on junk rodent food struggled to find their way around a maze, and took longer to remember solutions to problems they had already solved. Some of the damage may be due to triglyceride, a cholesterol-like substance found at high levels in rodents fed on trans-fats. When researchers gave these rats a drug to bring triglyceride levels down, their memory task performance improved.

To keep brains “well oiled”, the New Scientist article mentioned evidence for the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, in particular DHA (hence fish, high in omega-3s, is an ideal “brain food” dinner). Not only will DHA feed and lubricate the brain, it also seems to delay dementia. Recent studies show that older mice, altered to develop Alzheimer's, had 70 percent less of the plaques associated with the disease when fed a high-DHA diet. Finally, the article suggests finishing your evening meal with strawberries and blueberries. Rats fed these fruits showed improved coordination, concentration and short-term memory. Even if they don't work such wonders in people, they still taste great!

In summary, the good old parental advice we resist for so long really is best: eat your fruits and vegetables (an apple a day keeps the doctor away), consume fish instead of meats, and cut down on sneaky snack attacks (which can not only “ruin” your appetite, but make your jeans too tight, too). Substitute healthy snacks, and take Omega-3 supplements like DHA. In fact, let the letters DHA guide you: Do Healthy Alternatives.

Mozart music may make math minds and mental might

Psychologist Frances Rauscher and her colleagues discovered that listening to Mozart improved people's mathematical and spatial reasoning. Even rats ran mazes faster and more accurately after hearing Mozart than after white noise or music by a minimalist composer. More recently, Rauscher reported that, for rats, a Mozart piano sonata seems to stimulate activity in three genes involved in the brain’s nerve-cell signaling.

However, the New Scientist article points out that not everyone has found evidence of the Mozart effect. Even its proponents admit music boosts brain power because it makes listeners “feel better” - relaxed and stimulated - and that comparable stimuli might do just as well. One study found listening to a story gave a similar performance boost. However, one way music is sure to make you smarter is via lessons. Six-year-olds given music lessons, as opposed to drama lessons or no lessons, got a 2 to 3 point boost in IQ scores compared with others. Also, Rauscher found that two years of music lessons led pre-school kids to score better on spatial reasoning tests than those taking computer lessons.

No one knows exactly why music lessons yield such benefits, or whether adults can get the same mental boost as young children. But there seems no harm in trying.

Worst case is you will learn an immensely enjoyable new hobby, one that will bring years of joy to you and all those around you (unless your name is Jack Benny).

Get working memory working for you

A person's IQ - measuring problem-solving abilities - used to be considered a fixed entity, forged by genetics. Recently, that thinking has changed. New view: a basic brain function called working memory (WM) might underlie general intelligence; if so, improving WM might lead to improved IQ. WM is the brain's short-term info-storage system, a place to solve problems (calculate 73 - 6 + 7, and WM stores intermediate steps needed to compute the answer). The amount of information WM can hold is strongly related to general intelligence. A Swedish team found signs that the neural systems behind WM may grow in response to training. Using MRI brain scans, they measured brain activity of adults before and after WM training, for various tasks. After five weeks of training, brain activity had increased in regions associated with WM. Another result: when they studied kids who had completed these types of mental workouts, they saw improvement in cognitive abilities not related to the training, and an IQ test score jump of 8 percent. More work is needed, but WM training could be one key to better brain power. While genetics may be the main factor, a few percent seems to be improvable by training.

Memorable memory methods

Lapses in recall affect us all. Yet we can improve memory, by learning some techniques and strategies. When one research group studied frontrunners in the World Memory Championships, they didn’t find super high IQs or differently configured brains. However, while memorizing, these leaders showed activity in three brain areas normally active during movement and navigation tasks, not during simple memory tests. This may be because seven of them used a strategy in which they place items to be remembered along a visualized route. Example: to remember the sequence of a pack of cards, the champions assign each card an identity (person, object, etc.); as they go through the cards, they create a story based on a sequence of interactions between characters and objects at sites along a known route. Actors use a related technique: attaching emotional meaning to what they say. We remember highly emotional moments better than less emotional ones. Pro actors can also link words with movement, recalling lines with action much better than those delivered while static, even months after a show ends.

A psychologist and an actor (Helga and Tony Noice) discovered this effect, and found that non-actors can benefit by using a related method. Students who paired words with previously learned actions could recall 38 percent of them after 5 minutes, whereas rote learners only recalled 14 percent. The Noices believe having two mental representations means better odds of remembering. Strategy is important in everyday life as well. Simple things like always putting car keys in the same place, writing things down to clear your mind, or just paying more attention, can improve how much information you recall. If names give you trouble, try making mental associations – a time-tested technique.

If you dream of better problem solving, get more sleep

Less sleep means hurt brain; planning, problem-solving, learning, concentration, working memory, IQ scores and alertness decline. Luckily, it's reversible. Also, non-sleep-deprived folks who sleep an extra hour or two perform better than normal on tasks requiring sustained attention. Being able to concentrate harder also has benefits for overall mental performance. Attention is the base of a “mental pyramid”; boost that, and you boost all above it. More benefits to slumber: your brain processes new memories during sleep, practices/hones new skills, and solves problems. If you're learning a new game and then sleep, your brain will reactivate circuits it used as you learned, rehearse them, then move the new memories into long-term storage. When you wake, you may play better; this also applies to learning other skills (playing music, driving, memorizing).

Evidence also shows sleep can foster flashes of problem-solving insight. Chemist Dmitri Mendeleev allegedly "got" his Periodic Table suddenly, in a dream, after a day wrestling with the problem. Sleep helps brains juggle new memories, producing “eureka moments”.

A similar story of “sleepsolving” involves the scientist Kekule, who (the story goes) discovered the circular molecular shape of benzene (the famed benzene ring) in a dream, seeing a serpent swallowing its tail. So, if you want more eureka moments, and less “senior moments”, be generous with your shut-eye time.

Brains, brawn, and the benefits of a boffo body

Walking 30 minutes three times a week can improve learning, concentration and abstract reasoning by 15 percent, and the effects are noticeable even more in seniors. Those who walk regularly perform better on memory tests - plus, over time, their scores on cognitive tests decline less than non-walker scores. One UK woman found that kids who exercise three or four times a week get higher than average exam grades at age 10 or 11. Possible reason: aerobic exercise may boost mental might by getting more oxygen to the brain.

Another benefit: exercise promotes new brain cell growth. Until recently, it was thought we are born with all the neurons we’ll ever have. A Salk Institute scientist disproved that, showing adults can grow new brain cells; exercise is one way to achieve this. In mice, exercise’s beneficial brain gains are greatest in the hippocampus, a key area for learning and memory. Since this is also the region damaged when levels of the stress hormone cortisol are elevated, running is a great way to both lessen stress and aid the process of natural brain cell building. A final note: mental exercise can apparently help the body, just as exercising the body helps the mind. Volunteers spent 15 minutes a day thinking about exercising their biceps; after 12 weeks, their arms were 13 percent stronger!

Just think - that old bestseller could have been called “Think and Grow Biceps”.

Second to nun

One never knows where valuable science will take place. For example, a convent was the setting for a brain-science experiment involving nuns age 75 to 107, which shed light on how to keep the brain healthy. This study, a collaboration between 678 Catholic sisters and Alzheimer's expert David Snowdon, showed that their longevity is partly due to their lifestyle: they live quietly and communally, eat healthily and in moderation, are spiritual and calm, and don’t drink or smoke. Still, small differences between nuns could reveal the key to a healthy mind in later life. Some had Alzheimer's, but many avoided any dementia or senility. Sister Matthia was mentally fit and active from birth till her death at age 104; a brain post-mortem showed no signs of excessive aging. But in other cases, nuns showed no outward signs of senility, yet their brains appeared ravaged by dementia.

How did Sister Matthia and others maintain better brains? Good amounts of the vitamin folate was one factor. Verbal ability and positive emotions early in life were key as well. Crosswords, knitting and exercising also helped to prevent senility, as did spirituality and positive attitude. To avoid dementia, general health may be vital: metabolic problems, small strokes and head injuries seem to be triggers of Alzheimer's dementia.

Coming to attention

Concentration is a complex mental process, but there are ways to improve it. First: raise your arousal levels. The brain's attentional state is ruled by neurotransmitters dopamine and noradrenalin. Dopamine promotes a “goal-centered” mind, and noradrenalin “produces an outward-looking, vigilant state”. Hence, increasing dopamine levels can pump up your powers of concentration. Caffeine can help, but the best drug-free strategy is to sleep well, eat foods with slow-release sugars, and exercise. Also try to focus on things you find interesting. Second: reduce distractions. Workplace studies show it takes many minutes to restore concentration after calls or other distractions. Music can help; listen to soothing tunes that mask background noise. Also avoid working near possible diversions. Third: practice mental drills to deal with distractions. Recognize when your mind wanders; catch yourself by saying "Be here now!" Concentration improves when you cultivate mindfulness and eat foods good for the “physiochemical state of the brain”.

Fantastic feedback

Neurofeedback and related mind control methods help boost brain power. No one quite knows how, and it is hard to describe exactly how to do it - but it is gaining scientific support. Neurofeedback involves showing you a real-time measure of some facet of your physiology, normally considered to be subconsciously controlled (such as heart rate or brain wave activity), and asking you to consciously change it. Many find they can. This technique has been applied to brain waves, measured by EEGs (electroencephalograms). In one experiment, researchers linked a computer game’s car speed to the size of the alpha wave, which grows when we are calm and focused - then asked subjects to increase the car’s speed using only their minds. Many did, and seemed to become more alert and focused as a result. Such success encouraged others, and neurofeedback became popular therapy for ADHD, epilepsy, depression, tinnitus, anxiety, stroke and brain injuries.

Some experimenters have used brain scanners in place of EEGs. Scanners let people see and control activity in specific parts of the brain. A Stanford team showed that people could learn to control pain by watching the activity of their pain centers (reported in New Scientist, 1 May 2004). Another researcher showed neurofeedback can improve med students' memory and calm them before exams, as well as improve musicians' and dancers' technique. Yet another investigates neurofeedback as an aid for psychopathic criminals to control impulsiveness. Plus, there are indications that these techniques might boost creativity, give shy people confidence, lift low moods, alter the balance between left and right brain activity, and modify personality traits.

Think of it – so many positives through positive thinking, and similar tinkering with our thinking. Multiple marvelous benefits for many, so maybe millions more should mind what goes on in their mind. Mind over matter matters.

Magnetic personalities

Perhaps the training and tricks described above are somehow not appealing, or sound too hard. How about a shortcut? Certain tech advances, either here now or on the horizon, may soon enable us to boost brain function in dramatic and rapid ways.  While bionic brains or brain-computer hybrids may be a decade or two away from fully-tested, safe applications, one noninvasive treatment does seem poised to become a popular treatment to diagnose and improve brain function: TMS, or “transcranial magnetic stimulation”. In TMS, a magnetic apparatus “produces an electric pulse that blocks nerve signals” in a “controlled region below the skull”. TMS has been shown to “boost mood in depression”, and might even lower inhibitions, as well as foster creative expression.

If you think that tinkering with Mother Nature’s greatest creation (the brain) is just too dangerous to fund and support research like TMS, or more futuristic feats like implants and direct brain manipulation, consider that we have already condoned such tinkering when it comes to many other aspects of our bodies.  Just because this domain happens to be the brain doesn’t mean the techniques can’t be made relatively safe, with rewarding benefits. Especially for those with no hope and no other choice, such advanced or radical techniques might eventually become the preferred way – in some cases, the only way -- to preserve or remedy one’s brain. Of course, to avoid radical brain treatment and prevent dire mental maladies from occurring, reread the other steps mentioned in this article!

This article is based on a posting titled “11 steps to a better brain”, which appears on the SteveGraham.org website by Steve Graham.  The above article is not meant to be interpreted as a diagnosis or as medical advice; please consult your doctor or health care professional for more information to help you decide whether to take action on any of the ideas mentioned above.

The article on this page, and the post by Steve Graham, are covered by a Creative Commons License (version 2.0). SUMMARY OF THE CREATIVE COMMONS ATTRIBUTION LICENSE for this work: Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0: You are free to copy, distribute, display, and perform the work; to make derivative works; to make commercial use of the work.  Under the following conditions: (1) Attribution -- You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor. (2) Share Alike -- If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one. For any reuse or distribution, you must make clear to others the license terms of this work. Any of these conditions can be waived if you get permission from the copyright holder.  Your fair use and other rights are in no way affected by the above.  Please go to the Creative Commons License site to view more information about the Creative Commons license that applies to this work.

Don Rose writes books, papers and articles on computers, the Internet, AI, science and technology, and issues related to seniors.

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