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Study: A personalized, multi-modal brain fitness program can help grow hippocampal volume and improve brain function

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– Fig­ure 2. MRI scans showed an 8.6% growth in the vol­ume of the hip­pocam­pus (HC) in one patient. (A): Base­line Brain MRI. (B): Post-pro­gram Brain MRI. ©: High­er mag­ni­fi­ca­tion of base­line hip­pocam­pal vol­ume. (D): High­er mag­ni­fi­ca­tion of the post-pro­gram hip­pocam­pal vol­ume

Can the brain shrink­age that hap­pens to us with aging be reversed? Can we actu­al­ly grow back our brain and boost our mem­o­ry in our 60s and 70s?

The answers seem to be Yes and Yes–at least when talk­ing about some impor­tant brain struc­tures, like the hip­pocam­pus, that tend to decline as we grow old­er. A new study just pub­lished in the Jour­nal of Pre­ven­tion of Alzheimer’s Dis­ease pro­vides evi­dence for the fact that advanced age does not inhib­it the capac­i­ty to increase the vol­ume of the hippocampus–the thumb-sized pair of brain struc­tures that are ground zero for mem­o­ry and learn­ing.

Togeth­er with my col­leagues at Johns Hop­kins, UCLA and the Neu­roGrow Brain Fit­ness Cen­ter, we enrolled 127 elder­ly patients who had a diag­no­sis of Mild Cog­ni­tive Impair­ment in a 12-week-long mul­ti-modal brain fit­ness pro­gram. Patients first under­went a head-to-toe eval­u­a­tion to deter­mine the poten­tial caus­es for their cog­ni­tive decline; they were checked for every­thing from sleep apnea, depres­sion, and anx­i­ety to thy­roid dis­ease, vit­a­min defi­cien­cy, or med­ica­tion side-effects. They also under­went brain MRI, for­mal cog­ni­tive test­ing, and brain map­ping EEG. They then met with the researchers to review their results and find out how well their brains were func­tion­ing, as com­pared to oth­er peo­ple at their age. Once they learned the spe­cif­ic caus­es for the decline in their brain per­for­mance, they received three sets of inter­ven­tions for 5 hours a week over 12 weeks.

Their per­son­al­ized treat­ment pro­to­col includ­ed one-on-one train­ing for cog­ni­tive stim­u­la­tion, med­i­ta­tion train­ing, stress reduc­tion breath­ing tech­niques, coun­sel­ing for diet and exer­cise, and neu­ro­feed­back. With neurofeedback—or EEG biofeedback–patients can see their own brain waves on the com­put­er screen, and get reward­ed every time their brain pat­tern inch­es toward a state of being calm and focused.

Week after week, patients (and researchers) could track whether they felt more relaxed, hap­pi­er, sharp­er. At the end of 12 weeks, they repeat­ed their base­line tests.

Results showed that 84% of the 127 patients had gained sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant improve­ments in their mem­o­ry, atten­tion, focus, or oth­er aspects of brain func­tion.  MRI results revealed that 53% of patients had grown the vol­ume of their hip­pocam­pus to a lev­el of some­one who is 2 to 18 years younger, with­in just 12 weeks. Fur­ther­more, some patients had a repeat MRI one year lat­er and the expan­sion in their hip­pocam­pus size appeared to have either sus­tained, or improved fur­ther.

The aver­age atro­phy in the vol­ume of hip­pocam­pus is about 0.5% per year after age 50. In our study, the aver­age amount of expan­sion in the vol­ume of the hip­pocam­pus was 3% in 3 months, which is equiv­a­lent to about 6 years of aging. One of our patients, whose MRI is shown in Fig­ure 2 of our paper (see above), had an expan­sion of 8.6% (or 17 years of typ­i­cal aging), and this improve­ment in brain vol­ume par­al­leled her improve­ments in cog­ni­tive test results.

We cer­tain­ly need more and bet­ter con­trolled research before “brain fit­ness” becomes as main­stream as phys­i­cal fit­ness is today, but the bot­tom line today is this: We can choose lifestyles that accel­er­ate brain growth and vital­i­ty, or that pro­mote brain atro­phy and demen­tia. Each of us is mak­ing choic­es on a dai­ly basis.

As Hen­ry Ford said, “whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you are right.”

StudyA Per­son­al­ized 12-week “Brain Fit­ness Pro­gram” for Improv­ing Cog­ni­tive Func­tion and Increas­ing the Vol­ume of Hip­pocam­pus in Elder­ly with Mild Cog­ni­tive Impair­ment (The Jour­nal of Pre­ven­tion of Alzheimer’s Dis­ease)

  • Abstract: Reduc­ing cog­ni­tive decline in patients with Mild Cog­ni­tive Impair­ment (MCI) may slow their pro­gres­sion to devel­op demen­tia. In this 12-week sin­gle-arm inter­ven­tion tri­al, elder­ly patients (n = 127, age 70.69 +/-10.53, 63% female) with a diag­no­sis of MCI were enrolled in a mul­ti-dis­ci­pli­nary Brain Fit­ness Pro­gram. The main out­come mea­sure was changes in a bat­tery of 10 cog­ni­tive domains. Each patient received week­ly per­son­al­ized cog­ni­tive stim­u­la­tion, neu­ro­feed­back train­ing, and brain coaching/counseling for eat­ing a Mediter­ranean diet, tak­ing omega-3 sup­ple­ments, increas­ing fit­ness, and prac­tic­ing mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion. The post-pro­gram test­ing showed 84% of the patients expe­ri­enced sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant improve­ments in their cog­ni­tive func­tion (p< 0.05). Among the ran­dom sam­ple of 17 patients who had a post-pro­gram quan­ti­ta­tive MRI, 12 patients had either no atro­phy or an actu­al growth above the base­line vol­ume of their hip­pocam­pus. These pre­lim­i­nary find­ings sup­port the con­cept that a per­son­al­ized Brain Fit­ness Pro­gram can improve cog­ni­tive func­tion and either reverse or grow the vol­ume of hip­pocam­pus in elder­ly with MCI.

Fotuhi-photo-8-1-239x300— A Har­vard and Johns Hop­kins-trained neu­rol­o­gist and neu­ro­sci­en­tist, Dr. Majid Fotuhi is chair­man of Mem­o­syn Neu­rol­ogy Insti­tute, Med­ical Direc­tor of Neu­roGrow Brain Fit­ness Cen­ter, and Affil­i­ate Staff at Johns Hop­kins Howard Coun­ty Gen­er­al Hos­pi­tal.

 

To learn more, read the arti­cles Solv­ing the Brain Fit­ness Puz­zle Is the Key to Self-Empow­ered Aging and Can you grow your hip­pocam­pus? Yes. Here’s how, and why it mat­ters.

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