Category Archives: Brain & Health News

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 (www.globalfinals.org) 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.

Federal Government and Alzheimer’s Disease

I read with great interest that the United States federal government is considering a plan that provides effective treatments for Alzheimer’s disease by 2025. Such a national strategy is desperately needed and long overdue. It is well known that Alzheimer’s disease, the leading cause of progressive dementia, will increase significantly from the 5.4 million persons affected today to over 15 million by the middle of this century.

The nation already expends nearly 200 billion dollars annually in the care of those with Alzheimer’s disease and there are nearly 15 million caregivers who are directly or indirectly affected by the disease. Indeed, our entire society is affected and the national strategy is an important step. Former Speaker Gingrich has talked openly about the need for the neurosciences to be a major source of innovation for the health of the brain and I hope other politicians help to make this a reality. The Obama Administration is developing the first National Alzheimer’s Plan to address the medical and social problems of dementia. This plan is not just for treatment, but also for better daily care for dementia patients and their caregivers.

Among the major goals of the plan are to:

  1. Begin a national public awareness campaign of dementia’s early-warning signs to improve early diagnosis.
  2. Give primary care doctors the tools assess signs of dementia as part of Medicare’s annual checkup.
  3. Have caregiver’s physical and mental health regularly checked.
  4. Improve care planning and training for families, so they know what resources are available for their loved one and for themselves.

These are important and necessary goals for inclusion in any national plan. However, they are not comprehensive which is what is needed. Some critics of the plan argue that the government is not being bold enough. My suggestions for a more comprehensive plan would include the following additional goals:

  1. Teach the basics of the human brain to every middle school student in order to develop personal investment in the workings of the brain and how to keep the brain healthy.
  2. Promote and prioritize a brain health lifestyle ® using the latest research on what we can do individually and as a society to live a proactive and lifelong lifestyle that promotes the health of the brain.
  3. Understand that diseases the manifest late in life begin early in life. We need to consider early nonmedical interventions such as education, diet, spirituality, mental stimulation, and socialization tools that begin when a baby is developing in the womb.
  4. Create tax benefits for families who care for their loved ones or pay for others to care for them in the person’s home.
  5. Create a chronic care system for older adults that understands chronic care is not the same as acute care and that hospitals are actually not a healthy place for older adults to be admitted.
  6. Incentive medical doctors and other health care professionals to become specialized in geriatrics and to promote “primary care status” to the geriatrician.
  7. Include brain health lifestyle ® within every wellness program and incentive all persons to live such a lifestyle.
  8. Develop annual standardized assessments for persons to undergo to measure the health and functioning of their brain. The brain should be treated as a priority rather than continue to be neglected in our culture.
  9. Revise the antiquated and outdated nursing home model of care.
  10. Increase the funding for dementia care, lifestyle approach, and caregiver programs sufficient to achieve success much earlier than 2025.

Christmas, the Holiday Season, and World Peace

It is too easy to turn the television or internet on and witness humans across the globe behaving with violence and harm towards others. This stands in direct contradiction to what Christmas and the Holiday season represents. It is hard to imagine what drives someone or a group of people to attack others. Peace is a noble goal worth pursuing and Peace on Earth is what Christmas and the Holiday season are about.

Peace begins internally by cleaning out our own ill will and negativity. We can literally engage in mental exercises by thinking positive thoughts and feeling positive emotions. This stimulates the left frontal region of our brain and can leave us feeling balanced and peaceful. We can then work with others to try and sway their thinking and behavior towards unity and away from conflict. War, death, and violence are no recipe for progress of the human race.

This is a special week for many across the planet, one that provides the ingredients of love, joy, and peace that can unite us. We are one race and we live on one planet. We have much more in common than we differ. My hope is that we begin to treat one another with greater respect, attending to our similarities and common ground, and to refrain from the impulsive actions or reactions that can lead to harm.

World peace is indeed a noble goal and one that is actually within our control. It begins with everyone taking some time to develop inner peace despite the fact we live in a fast and imperfect society. Treat one another with love and respect and keep in mind what Christmas and the Holiday season represent.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holiday to all.