Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


Brain Evolution and Why it is Meaningful Today to Improve Our Brain Health

Over the last months, thanks to the traffic growth of (over 100,000 unique visitors per month these days, THANK YOU for visiting today and please come back!), a number of proactive book agents, publishers and authors have contacted us to inform us of their latest brain-related books. We have taken a look at many books, wrote reviews of The Dana Guide to Brain Health book review‚ and Best of the Brain from Scientific American, and interviewed scientists such as Judith Beck, Robert Emmons and James Zull.

Brain Trust ProgramNow we are launching a new Author Speaks Series to provide a platform for leading scientists and experts writing high-quality brain-related books to reach a wide audience. We are honored to start the series with an article by Larry McCleary, M.D, former acting Chief of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Denver Children’s Hospital, and author of The Brain Trust Program: A Scientifically Based Three-Part Plan to Improve Memory, Elevate Mood, Enhance Attention, Alleviate Migraine and Menopausal Symptoms, and Boost Mental Energy (Perigee Trade, 2007).

Without further ado, let’s enjoy Dr. McCleary’s article:

Brain Evolution and Why it is Meaningful Today to Improve Our Brain Health

You may feel overwhelmed by the stream of seemingly contradictory suggestions regarding the best way to maintain mental clarity as you age. Based on an analysis of seminal factors in the development of modern brain anatomy, I believe it is possible to make some very compelling recommendations for growing big brains, enhancing their function, and making them resistant to the aging process. These may be loosely categorized as factors pertaining to the mental or physical attributes of the brain. Although they are not truly independent entities, such a conceptualization provides a basis for the generation of brain healthy prescriptions. Diet, physical exercise, and stress reduction enhance neuronal resilience. Sleep and mental stimulation are vital for cognitive ability, learning, and memory.

Diet: Follow a modern shore-based/marine diet including seafood in its most general sense, non-starchy vegetables of all colors, berries, and eggs. Other sources of lean protein containing long-chain omega 3 fatty acids such as free range beef, chicken, bison, or elk are nutritious alternatives.

Physical exercise (Think fight or flight – activity.): Include all types. Aerobic activities such as swimming, bicycling, walking, or hiking for promotion of vascular health and weight control; resistance training for promotion of neurotrophic factors, naturally occurring compounds that make brain cells more resistant to aging, such as IGF-1 (Insulin-like growth factor-1) and BDNF (Brain-derived neurotrophic factor); and balance, coordination, and agility training such as ping-pong, balance beam, trampoline, and jumping rope to enhance cognitive speed and motor skills.

Stress Control: From an evolutionary perspective, stressors (such as meeting a cave bear) and intense physical activity (running or fighting) were brief in duration and usually occurred together. Modern stressors (psychological or emotional stress) tend to be unremitting and are generally uncoupled from the physical (fight or flight) component, meaning stress develops without any associated physical activity. Such intense physical pursuits are now called exercise. Not surprisingly, exercise is a perfect physiologic antidote for stress due to its beneficial impact on cortisol (the stress hormone) and blood pressure and should be incorporated into any program of stress reduction.

Adequate sleep: The body needs rest, but the brain requires sleep. Acute or chronic sleep deprivation causes devastating short and long-term consequences to brain anatomy (synaptic loss) and function (memory and learning difficulties). Off-line information processing and memory consolidation are additional sleep-related benefits.

Mental stimulation: Brain-training, a cognitively challenging lifestyle, novelty, and socialization are vital for the promotion of neuronal plasticity and neurogenesis (the formation of new nerve cells and neuronal connections), the enhancement of specific brain functions such as memory, and the development of cognitive reserve – additional mental processing potential that may be brought online when needed.

The combination of these recommendations, each of which was instrumental in the transformation from primitive to modern nervous systems, provides a template for the most logical approach for enhancing mental function and resisting neurodegeneration as we travel through life.

The Evolutionary Rationale

The human brain clearly has the genetic potential for dramatic expansion. This was illustrated about Read the rest of this entry »

10 Highlights from the 2007 Aspen Health Forum

AspenThe Aspen Health Forum gathered an impressive group of around 250 people to discuss the most pressing issues in Health and Medical Science (check out the Program and the Speakers bios), on October 3-6th. It was the first conference, by the way, where I have heard a speaker say: “I resuscitated a woman yesterday”.

Key highlights and trends:

1- Global health problems require the attention of the scientific community. Richard Klausner encouraged the scientific community to focus on Global Problems: maternal mortality rates, HIV/ AIDS, nutrition, cancer, clean water.  Bill Frist, former Senate Majority Leader, added to that list the increasing epidemic risks of global zootic diseases (transmitted between humans and animals), supported by 2 interesting data points: at any one moment, there are 500,000 people flying worldwide; in a year, airlines transport the equivalent of 2 billion passengers.

2- “Let’s get real…Ideology kills”. Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, on what it takes to stop HIV/ AIDS: “I am from Ireland, a Catholic country. And I am Catholic. But I can see how ideology kills..we need more empathy with reality, and to work with local women in those countries who need things like female condoms.” She was implicitly criticizing the large budget devoted to unrealistic abstinence programs. This session included a fascinating exchange where Bill Frist rose from the audience to defend the role of US aid, explaining how 60% of retroviral drugs in African countries have been funded by the American taxpayer, highlighting President Bush’s courage to make HIV/AIDS a top agenda item in many developing countries, and criticizing other countries for not doing enough. Which made Nobel Prize Laureate Peter Agre, also in the audience, stand up and encourage the US to really step up to the plate and devote 1% of the GDP to aid, as a number of European countries do, instead of 0.1%.

3- Where is the new “Sputnik”?: Basic science is crucial for innovation and for economic growth, but it is often underappreciated. Scientists are not “nerds”, as sometimes they are portrayed in popular culture, but people with a deep curiosity and drive to solve a Big problem. Many of the speakers had been inspired by the Sputnik and the Apollo missions to become scientists, at a time when the profession was considered cool. Two Nobel Prize Laureates (Peter Agre, Michael Bishop), talked about their lives and careers trying to demystify what it takes to be a scientist and to win a Nobel Prize. Both are grateful to the taxpayers dollars that funded their research, and insist we must do a better job at explaining the Sputnikscientific process to society at large. Both are proud of having attended small liberal arts colleges, and having evolved from there, fueled by their great curiosity and unpredictable, serendipitous paths, into launching new scientific and medical fields.  Bishop listed a number of times where he made decisions that were considered “career suicide” by mentors and colleagues, and mentioned “I was confused” around 15 times in 15 minutes…down to earth and inspiring.

4- We need a true Health Care Culture: Mark Ganz summarized it best by explaining how his health provider group improved care when they redefined themselves from “we are 7,000 employees” to “we are a 3 million strong community”, moving from Read the rest of this entry »

Neuroplasticity 101 and Brain Health Glossary

Given the growing number of articles in the popular press mentioning words such as “neuroplasticity”, “fMRI” and “cognitive reserve”, let’s review some key findings, concepts and terms.

First, a prescient quote by Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal (1852-1934): “Every man can, if he so desires, become the sculptor his own brain“.

fmri.jpgThanks to new neuroimaging techniques, regarded “as important for neuroscience as telescopes were for astronomy, neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists have been finding that the brain has a number of “core capacities” and “mental muscles” that can be exercised through novelty, variety and practice, and that exercising our brain can influence the generation of new neurons and their connections. Brain exercise is being recognized, therefore, as a critical pillar of brain health, together with nutrition, physical exercise and stress management.

Previous beliefs about our brain and how it works have been proven false. Some beliefs that have been debunked include claims that adult brains can not create new neurons (shown to be false by Berkeley scientists Marian Diamond and Mark Rosenzweig, and Salk Institute’s Fred Gage), notions that working memory has a maximum limit of 6 or 7 items (debunked by Karolinska Institute Torkel Klingberg), and assumptions that the brain’s basic processes can not be reorganized by repeated practice (UCSF’s Drs. Paula Tallal and Michael Merzenich). The “mental muscles” we can train include attention, stress and emotional management, memory, visual/ spatial, auditory processes and language, motor coordination and executive functions like planning and problem-solving.

Mental stimulation is important if done in the right supportive and engaging environment. Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky has proven that chronic stress and cortical inhibition, which may be aggravated due to imposed mental stimulation, may prove counterproductive. Having the right motivation is essential.

A surprising and promising area of scientific inquiry is Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). An increasing number of neuroscientists (such as University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Richard Davidson) are investigating the ability of trained meditators to develop and sustain attention and visualizations and to work positively with powerful emotional states and stress through the directed mental processes of meditation practices.

And now, some keywords:

Brain Fitness Program: structured set of brain exercises, usually computer-based, designed to train specific brain areas and processes in targeted ways.

Chronic Stress: ongoing, long-term stress, which blocks the formation of new neurons and Read the rest of this entry »

Build Your Cognitive Reserve: An Interview with Dr. Yaakov Stern

Yaakov SternDr. Yaakov Stern is the Division Leader of the Cognitive Neuroscience Division of the Sergievsky Center, and Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology, at the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University, New York. Alvaro Fernandez interviews him here as part of our research for The SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness book.

Dr. Stern is one of the leading proponents of the Cognitive reserve theory, which aims to explain why some individuals with full Alzheimer’s pathology (accumulation of plaques and tangles in their brains) can keep normal lives until they die, while others -with the same amount of plaques and tangles- display the severe symptoms we associate with Alzheimer’s Disease. He has published dozens of peer-reviewed scientific papers on the subject.

The concept of a Cognitive Reserve has been around since 1989, when a post mortem analysis of 137 people with Alzheimer’s Disease showed that some patients exhibited fewer clinical symptoms than their actual pathology suggested. These patients also showed higher brain weights and greater number of neurons when compared to age-matched controls. The investigators hypothesized that the patients had a larger “reserve” of neurons and abilities that enable them to offset the losses caused by Alzheimer’s. Since then, the concept of Cognitive Reserve has been defined as the ability of an individual to tolerate progressive brain pathology without demonstrating clinical cognitive symptoms. (You can check at the end of this interview a great clip on this).


Key take-aways

– Lifetime experiences, like education, engaging occupation, and leisure activities, have been shown to have a major influence on how we age, specifically on whether we will develop Alzheimer’s symptoms or not.

– This is so because stimulating activities, ideally combining physical exercise, learning and social interaction, help us build a Cognitive Reserve to protect us.

– The earlier we start building our Reserve, the better; but it is never too late to start. And, the more activities, the better: the effect is cumulative.


The Cognitive Reserve

Alvaro Fernandez (AF): Dear Dr. Stern, it is a pleasure to have you here. Let me first ask you this: the implications of your research are pretty broad, presenting major implications across sectors and age groups. What has been the most unexpected reaction so far?

YS: well…I was pretty surprised when Read the rest of this entry »

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