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.”
Study: A 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.
— 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.