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

Over the last months, thanks to the traf­fic growth of SharpBrains.com (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.

He 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).

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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.

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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 astound­ing, 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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