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Best of the Brain from Scientific American

Best of Brain, Scientific American

The Dana Foun­da­tion kind­ly sent us a copy of the great book Best of the Brain from Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can, a col­lec­tion of 21 superb arti­cles pub­lished pre­vi­ous­ly in Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can mag­a­zine. A very nice­ly edit­ed and illus­trat­ed book, this is a must for any­one who enjoys learn­ing about the brain and spec­u­lat­ing about what the future will bring us.

Some essays, like the ones by Eric Kan­del (The New Sci­ence of Mind), Fred Gage (Brain, Repair Your­self), Carl Zim­mer (The Neu­ro­bi­ol­o­gy of the Self) and that by Steven Hol­lon, Michael Thase and John Markowitz (Treat­ing Depres­sion: Pills or Talk), are both intel­lec­tu­al feasts and very rel­e­vant to brain fit­ness. And final­ly start­ing to per­co­late into main­stream con­scious­ness.

Let me quote some quotes and reflec­tions as I was read­ing the book a cou­ple of days ago, in the court­yard of a beau­ti­ful French cafe in Berke­ley:

1) On Brain Plas­tic­i­ty (the abil­i­ty of the brain to rewire itself), Fred Gage says: “With­in the past 5 years, how­ev­er, neu­ro­sci­en­tists have dis­cov­ered that the brain does indeed change through­out life-…The new cells and con­nec­tions that we and oth­ers have doc­u­ment­ed may pro­vide the extra capac­i­ty the brain requires for the vari­ety of chal­lenges that indi­vid­u­als face through­out life. Such plas­tic­i­ty offers a pos­si­ble mech­a­nism through which the brain might be induced to repair itself after injury or dis­ease. It might even open the prospect of enhanc­ing an already healthy brain’s pow­er to think and abil­i­ty to feel”

2)  and How Expe­ri­ence affects Brain Struc­ture: Under the sec­tion title “A Brain Work­out”, Fred Gage says “One of the mot strik­ing aspects of neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis (Note: the cre­ation of new neu­rons) is that expe­ri­ence can reg­u­late the rate of cell divi­sion, the sur­vival of new­born neu­rons and their abil­i­ty to inte­grate into the exist­ing neur­al circuits…The best way to aug­ment brain func­tion might not involve drugs or cell implants but lifestyle changes.”

3) Biol­o­gy of Mind: Eric Kan­del pro­vides a won­der­ful overview of the most inter­est­ing areas of cog­ni­tive neu­ro­science. Every stu­dent con­sid­er­ing a career in neu­ro­science should read that arti­cle (and his book In Search of Mem­o­ry). A great quote: “Since the 1980s the path toward merg­ing mind and brain research has become clear­er. As a result, psy­chi­a­try has tak­en on a new role, both stim­u­lat­ing and ben­e­fit­ing from bio­log­i­cal thought. Dur­ing the past few years, even mem­bers of the psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic com­mu­ni­ty have tak­en on a keen inter­est in the biol­o­gy of mind, acknowl­edg­ing that every men­tal state is a brain state, that all men­tal dis­or­ders involve dis­or­ders of brain func­tion. Treat­ments work when they alter the brain’s struc­ture and func­tion­ing”.

4) And every inter­ven­tion works bet­ter when well-designed and well-direct­ed. The arti­cle Treat­ing Depres­sion: Pills or Talk includes “Qui­et­ly over the years, new­er psy­chother­a­peu­tic tech­niques have been intro­duced that may be just as good at alle­vi­at­ing acute dis­tress in all but the most severe­ly depressed patients. And some of the ther­a­pies pro­vide advan­tages over med­ica­tion alone, such as improv­ing the qual­i­ty of rela­tion­ships or reduc­ing the risk that symp­toms will return after treat­ment is over)…most ther­a­pies blend cog­ni­tive and behav­ioral strate­gies and are often referred to as CBT. The goal is not to “think hap­py thoughts” but to become more accu­rate on one’s self-assess­ments and more effec­tive on one’s behav­iours. Recent vari­ants such as mind­ful­ness-based cog­ni­tive ther­a­py incor­po­rate strate­gies based on medi­a­tion and accep­tance…”

5) An exam­ple on that bridge between mind and brain that Kan­del men­tions? Fred Gage reminds us how “Stim­u­lat­ing neu­ro­ge­n­e­sis could also lead to a new type of treat­ment for depres­sion. Chron­ic stress is believed to be the most impor­tant casu­al fac­tor in depres­sion aside from a genet­ic pre­dis­po­si­tion to the dis­or­der, and stress is known to restrict the num­ber of new­ly gen­er­at­ed neu­rons in the hip­pocam­pus (area of the brain involved in learn­ing and mem­o­ry).”

6) New tech­nolo­gies: There are many great arti­cles on a vari­ety of tech­nolo­gies, from TMS (Tran­scra­nial Mag­net­ic Stim­u­la­tion) to implant­i­ng elec­trodes for patients with spe­cif­ic dis­or­ders to neu­roimag­ing and “smart pills”.  Talk­ing about these, Stephen Hall says that “Giv­en that we are most like­ly 5 or 10 years away from “see­ing what hap­pens”, we’re prob­a­bly des­tined to read a lot more about smart drugs before we actu­al­ly have any pills on hands”.

7) A reflec­tion on Intel­li­gence: Final­ly, there are a num­ber of men­tions of “intel­li­gence” in a very loose­ly defined way. Ray Kurzweil says “Some­time ear­ly in the next cen­tu­ry, the intel­li­gence of machines will exceed that of humans”. In the arti­cle about “Unleash­ing Cre­ativ­i­ty”, Ulrich Kraft says “Intel­li­gence is not a cru­cial com­po­nent”. These 2 sen­tences only seem to make sense with a very nar­row, IQ-like, under­stand­ing of what “intel­li­gence” is. Maybe we need a Biol­o­gy of Intel­li­gence, on top of the Biol­o­gy of Mind?

Again, a very stim­u­lat­ing book. You can read more here. The Dana web­site also offers a list of rec­om­mend­ed sci­en­tif­ic books on the mind and brain.

If you are look­ing for a book with more prac­ti­cal advice, you may enjoy our review of The Dana Guide to Brain Health.

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10 Responses

  1. Viv King says:

    Excel­lent stuff — i have long thought that we should have sent a space­ship to the brain instead of the moon -put that mon­ey into brain research — it is such unchar­tered ter­ri­to­ry and we need more research into this sphere of Biology/Medicine/
    to take us as a species fur­ther.

  2. Sandra says:

    Ter­rif­ic review. I’m still read­ing it but agree it’s a nice col­lec­tion with some fas­ci­nat­ing info.

  3. Alvaro says:

    Viv: I agree, but we’ll need to wait until we get space­ships of appro­pri­ate size…

    San­dra: glad you are enjoy­ing it. We prob­a­bly are liv­ing now the unof­fi­cial, but real, Decade of the Brain

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