Category Archives: Brain & Health News

Helping Teachers Understand Brain and Behavior

I wrote a short piece many years ago describing my ideas of the school really being a brain health center. I also wrote about learning providing a type of “vaccine” for the brain to help fight off disease. I still believe in these ideas and over the past 10 years research has discovered findings on the human brain that support such speculation.

President Obama has initiated with politicians on both sides of the aisle a brain- mapping program that will allocate funds from the 2014 budget for exploration of the human brain. There is another legislative idea being promoted that will allocate money for educating our teachers about mental health and behavior in their students.

The latter is certainly guided by the recent school shooting tragedy, but such initiatives provide a wonderful opportunity for a basic foundational understanding of the human brain and behavior to be taught to all those who teach and work in our schools. Such an understanding can have a profound impact on teacher-student relations, teaching methodology, identification of potential behavioral risk factors, amelioration of problems before they escalate, and a deeper understanding of how environment can shape the brain.

I have had the great pleasure of working with many schools and districts across the United States teaching about the human brain and brining a “brain healthy culture” to the school. In essence, helping to turn the school into a Brain Health Environment. There are so many basic things we can do to facilitate such an environment and the students and teachers get motivated and excited by such innovation.

I hope to be more involved with schools across the United States and abroad to bring a basic understanding of the human brain and a brain health culture to the schools. It is important that we apply the research findings of the human brain to our classrooms and schools so that we not only can help in the area of mental illness, but that we nurture all brains to be the best they can be!



Concussion and Sports

By now most of you have heard, seen, read, or experienced personally or in the family the head injury we clinically refer to as concussion. A concussion is generally defined as an injury to the brain that can result in temporary loss of normal brain function. Such functions can include orientation, alertness, judgment, information processing, processing speed, attention and memory. Concussions can, but do not need to involve a loss of consciousness.

Some estimates are that more than 300,000 sports-related concussions occur annually in the United States, and that there is a 19% per year of play likelihood of sustaining a concussion. High school sports yield about 60,000 concussions each year and among college players 34% have had one concussion and 20% multiple concussions. Suffering one concussion increases the risk for that person to incur a second concussion and this is particularly true for football.

Estimates are that between four and twenty percent of college and high school football players will sustain a brain injury over the course of the season. Nearly 60% of college soccer players reported symptoms of a concussion at least once during the season. Concussion rates are comparable for soccer and football. Concussions also occur in non-sport activities such as automobile, biking, sledding, and falls around the home.

Implications for Health

There is no good reason to strike your head and brain. That is a simple, yet important statement for any person at any age. A concussion not only leads to a higher risk for another concussion, it also correlates with depression, impulsivity, and even dementia later in life. We are bombarded now with reports of football players suffering dementia from sustained head injuries clinically referred to as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

On a practical level, if your brain is damaged your ability to conduct basic daily activities such as driving, school work, sports, employment, and relationships may be limited. Our life as we had known it will likely be changed and the more severe the brain injury or concussion, the more limited we will be. This is devastating at any age, but it is particularly unfortunate for young persons who may not have even entered the work force yet.

Practical Ideas to Consider:

I am the father of three boys and I was raised and live in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania where football is second only to God! I want to provide you this context because the following ideas are not only difficult for me to express, they will be difficult for many to process. However, I work as a neuropsychologist and after 20 or more years of witnessing the consequences of brain injury I cannot be quiet:

  1. Communities should agree (not be legislated) to remove all tackle football for any child below the 11th grade. It is one thing to have ongoing discussions about the NFL and concussion, it is something completely different for our support of 6 and 7 year-olds dressing up with helmets and being instructed to “hit hard.” I refer to this as “organized stupidity.”
  2. All elementary schools should agree to provide curriculum on the basics of the human brain, how to keep it healthy, and what is not good for the brain.
  3. For those children who wish to play football prior to the 11th grade, flag football should be used.
  4. For those in the 11th grade who wish to play HS football, all schools should seek training and consultation of proper methods of play from college and professional coaches.
  5. All players in all sports, beginning at early ages, should undergo baseline assessments for brain integrity (Impact Test). This will provide important data on that child if a head injury occurs. All players should also be informed of proper lifestyle to help boost the health of their brain (see
  6. For those players who do play tackle football in the 11th grade and later, advanced equipment should be used and severe penalties should be extended to those who strike the head.
  7. For all sports, proper headgear should be used. I encourage all soccer, baseball, hockey, biking, basketball, etc. athletes to use some form of protective headgear or headband prior to setting foot on the field. The same is probably true of gymnastics, cheerleaders, and dancers.

It is my opinion that we are a great nation that should be more enlightened than our behavior suggests at times. I am not a proponent of legislating behavior change. We still have our rights and anyone has the right to be stupid! However, I think communities across the world and within school districts can have reasonable discussions that foster policies intended to protect our brains, particularly our young brains!

Harmony Between Limbic System and Frontal Lobe

We all know that feeling when things seem in sync, in harmony, and we are at peace. You may have heard the phrase “I am one with the world” that humans use to describe such inner balance. What a great feeling that is.

Unfortunately, we tend to live a fair amount of our lives out of balance as we chase the next, often small priority, task in our day. We live our lives with a sense of worry and chronic anxiety. Our bodies communicate such worry to us in the form of migraine headaches, irritable bowel syndrome, sleep disorder, irritability, ulcer and mood disorder.

The brain has two distinct, but integrated systems that facilitate such balance or imbalance. The first is known as the limbic system that provides our emotional being and serves as a type of “hot area of the brain.” This part of our brain can cause that inner sense of doom and gloom and set off the “fight or flight” reaction. It is called hot because of its emotionality that can also be impulsive and get us into some trouble in daily life.

The other brain region is the frontal lobe thought by some to be the cold analytic part of our being. This is the part of our being that helps to keep us socially graceful, rule abiding, and capable of conforming to civil order.

The goal in life is to balance these two regions, the hot limbic system with the cold analytic frontal lobe. Sometimes we are able to accomplish such a balance and integration and when this occurs we feel that inner sense of “oneness.” Crisis can integrate these regions quickly, which is why we tend to immediately prioritize those things that are most important in our lives and live in the moment during crisis. The goal needs to be to get to such integration without the crisis.

Some steps to consider include: (1) try to be in the moment and develop a consciousness about your inner balance; (2) are you approaching your day too emotional or too “hot” or are you “too cold” and overly analytic; (3) remind yourself of what is really important and what is not; (4) make an attempt to release those things that are not worthy of your energy or attention; (5) free up space and time in your life; (6) give things away; (7) be forgiving; (8) pray and meditate daily; (9) work on what your role and purpose is in life; (10) rely on love as the primary emotion and behavior.

These steps will set you on a path towards inner balance and to getting your limbic system happily integrated with your frontal lobe!

Words Sculpt the Brain

Neuroscience has underscored the importance of neural plasticity and this has unleashed an entire new way of thinking about the human brain. Indeed, we now know more about the brain than ever in our civilization, and most of the knowledge has been accrued in the past twenty years.

Plasticity enables a brain to be shaped by environmental input and it presumes a constantly reorganizing and malleable system. The brain is constantly being shaped, some for the positive and some for the negative. The good news is we have plenty of opportunity to make good decisions regarding how we want our brains to be shaped.

My brain health lifestyle ® promotes five major components to shaping the brain. These include physical activity, mental stimulation, nutrition, socialization, and spirituality. I have promoted an enriched environment filled with novel and complex stimuli as one that can shape the brain for the health.

I believe another major source of shaping or sculpting our brains is language. The spoken language and words themselves. Words are processed by the brain and interpreted for meaning. Such processing creates or leads to thought, emotion, and movement. I have written and spoken about the long-term effects words can have on a human brain and human being.

Consider for a moment some of the most important and wise statements or pieces of advice you have been given or you have read in your life. The very words made a lasting impression, perhaps emotional or cognitive, and literally sculpted your brain in a positive way. This is all neurophysiological and structural in nature, but it results in a behavioral or functional outcome. You might also recall an insult or a negative piece of feedback that affected you in a negative manner. The sculpting here is no less significant and carries with it the same potential for long-term effects.

Grandmother was correct and wise when she instructed to “not open our mouths unless we had something good to say”!

The messages we deliver in the form of words can carry a significant and long lasting effect. We can start and stop wars, start and stop relationships, help others succeed in life, and make others feel good about themselves.

Words, a pretty cool medicine indeed!

Our Future is in Good Hands!

I had the distinct pleasure of being invited to the 2012 Destination Imagination (DI) Global Finals ( event in Knoxville Tennessee. I provided the keynote address for opening ceremonies and learned about DI during my time spent over the four days at the event.

DI is a not-for-profit that brings young students together from across the planet to engage in critical thinking and creative challenges within an environment of competition. I can tell everyone that I saw tremendously talented young people from across the globe and I am happy to pronounce that our future is in good hands!

Chuck Cadle, CEO of DI has done a terrific job of leading DI with hundreds of volunteers committed to the mission of inspiring young brains to create and innovate. In a world where we talk about the need to apply our knowledge, DI is setting the pace.

I was given the opportunity to provide a five-minute keynote address to the 17,000 gathered at opening ceremonies in the basketball arena at the University of Tennessee. While I have spoken to many audiences across North America, this was truly a unique and awesome experience. There was some concern that young children might not be interested in hearing about the human brain and the importance that learning and lifestyle can have on the brain. I had no doubt, and many quickly learned how capable and interested these young people are in the brain.

I was so impressed with watching the student groups perform their competitive challenges and with the fun that was generated by all. I was also humbled by the genuine interest of so many students, teachers, and parents from many nations who introduced themselves to me and said they enjoyed my keynote.  I met many new friends and I congratulate the families who participated in 2012 Global Finals at DI.

Great job to Chuck and the entire DI staff. Thanks for letting be a small part.

Love and the Brain

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found a strong relationship between maternal support and nurturing in early childhood and the size of the hippocampus by school age. This is particularly interesting since so much recent study has focused on the power of the environment in shaping the structure and the function of the brain.

Children who obtain loving and nurturing care from their parents and particularly their mother (per this study) demonstrate larger hippocampal volume years later. The hippocampus is a structure in our brains critical for new learning and for processing stressful input. Chronic stress has been shown to negatively impact the structure and function of the hippocampus. This is why persons with chronic anxiety have memory problems.

On the positive side, a larger hippocampus not only helps us cope more effectively with daily stress, it also relates to reduced risk of mental illness and even to reduced risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. Once again, early life interventions, in this case understanding the importance of loving our children, can have lifelong health benefits.

We need to continue to appreciate and respect the enormous import that factors such as attitude, positive spirit, faith, and love have on our health and wellbeing. These things do not come in a pill or liquid, but they represent the best medicine we have and we should all prescribe ourselves a daily dose.

Natural Light: Positive Effects on the Brain and Health

I have been studying research in the area of natural light and its interaction on the human brain. An important point to make is that appropriate exposure to natural light has positive effects on our circadian rhythm and in turn promotes many aspects of health.

We evolved from exposure to natural day lighting. The sun provides a specific wavelength (blue range) in the early morning that lasts until early afternoon. At that point a different light wavelength is produced (red to orange range). We recently discovered that the retina has a specific photoreceptor that detects light and sends it to a special part of the brain known as the suprachiasm, located near the hypothalamus. Once the suprachiasm is triggered, it sets off the hypothalamus, the master gland that in turn triggers the pituitary, thyroid, and adrenal glands of the brain and body. The hormonal reaction to light is what causes and promotes the diverse actions of the body and health.

The blue range of light helps our bodies become aroused, alert, attentive and focused. As the day proceeds and we enter the afternoon when the blue range of light shifts to the red/orange range our bodies begin the process of slowing and ultimately sleeping. Our body slows in blood pressure and we enter the four stages of sleep including deep sleep. Melatonin is produced and growth hormones are triggered.

The circadian rhythm (means approximately a day) is critically important to our health as it has effects on our immune system, ability to fight off disease, hunger and obesity, blood pressure, and cognition. It controls our sleep wake cycle so important for brain function and body regulation.

I have learned that there are design lighting systems that help to promote exposure to natural light, to help set the circadian rhythm, and to promote human performance in the workplace and school. Natural lighting via design lighting systems can also help older adults residing in assisted living or long-term care facilities. Older adults experience changes in their sleep wake cycles and this gets exacerbated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Studies support increased school performance by students, and reduced agitation and increased sleep for older adults who reside or study in environments with the natural day lighting systems.

Email or call me if you work in a school district, an assisted living facility, or other building and have interest in enhancing human behavior and saving money from the energy efficiencies of natural day lighting systems.