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