When I present my keynote address on Brain Health I try to provide the audience with a glimpse of how complicated and miraculous the human brain really is. I typically make a statement that one day the human brain will be able to fix the maladies of the human body and that one day the human brain will communicate with other brains without opening the mouth.
While this may sound a bit science fiction I believe it to be true. A recent report provides yet more support for where our planet is heading. The automaker Honda has been funding research and development into the ability of the human brain via thoughts to relay commands to a robot that will alter the function of the car. If one wants the air conditioner turned on he or she can complete this by simply thinking the wish and the brain signals will trigger a robot mechanism to make the command happen.
In the near or distant future we will be able to conduct our basic daily functions from mental energies that will enable a much more efficient use of time and energy. It represents a true technological advancement based from the brain. Ultimately, this use of energy will be from brain to brain.
It is very hard not to appreciate the necessity of a higher being to the creation and existence of the human brain. Scientists have recently increased study of the relationship between a higher being, God, and the human brain. Why do patients with temporal lobe epilepsy or schizophrenia sometimes report hyper-religiosity, delusions of grandeur, and belief that they are God? Is there something about the Temporal Lobe and appreciation of God?
New research (see March Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) suggests that our own belief systems regarding God trigger different parts of the human brain. It appears that we use our cortex and higher order processing systems to think about God’s thoughts or emotions or even the metaphorical aspects of God or religion.
Of interest is the field of Neurotheology that studies the relationship between our belief systems and brain function. We most likely need to pay more attention to how religious beliefs and practices may help to promote quality of life and then integrate such practices into our standard prescribed health care therapies. For example, even in a brain ravaged with Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) the person can sit still and appropriately for nearly 30 minutes to hear a religious service or mass, to sing religious hymns, and to pray. This activity soothes the agitated brain in ways some, if not most, medications do not.
Old age may begin much earlier than thought if you believe age is defined by mental functions. According to new research conducted at the University of Virginia and published in the Neurobiology of Aging many cognitive functions demonstrate peak performance at age 22. By age 27 some cognitive functioning begins to decline while others such as memory decline around 37.
This study was conducted using standardized cognitive tests on 2,000 men and women aged 18-60 years of age and covered nearly seven years. Participants were in good health and well educated.
Aging involves multiple factors and change does not infer disorder. These results, however, further support the idea of a proactive brain health lifestyle that includes cognitive work outs (see fitbrains.com) that begin in childhood.
A recent study found that meditation may slow the progression of AIDS in just a few weeks. Researchers believe that meditation may help boost the immune system in combating the progression of the disease. This finding needs replication in a larger sample of patients, but it could offer a cost effective and relatively pleasant method to help people battle the terrible and progressive fatal condition. The stress lowering program known as “mindfulness meditation” was used. This type of meditation employs an open and receptive awareness of the present moment, avoiding thinking of the past or worrying about the future.
Researchers found the more often the patients meditated the higher their CD4-T Cell counts, a standard measure of how well the immune system is fighting the AIDS virus. The CD4 counts were measured before and after the two-month program. Researchers point out that this is the first study to indicate mindfulness meditation stress management training can have a direct impact on slowing HIV disease progression.
A larger issue here is that we are beginning to explore how the brain itself can begin to change the physiology of the body. Indeed I have speculated for some time that the brain has the ability to fix the body, we simply need to learn how. Perhaps we are on the right path!
A recent report indicates aspirin and non-steroidal antinflammatory drugs seem to have the positive and perhaps unexpected benefit, of cutting a person’s risk of developing AD.
Researchers at John’s Hopkins reviewed data from 13,499 cases to measure the protective effect from these commonly used drugs on AD risk. Over the course of the studies 820 people developed AD. However, those who used the non-steroidal drugs including aspirin, Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin and other brands) and Naproxen together had a 23% lower risk for AD than those who did not use such medications.
Researchers stated that while the different types of medications have different properties, they seemed to deliver the same level of protection. This study and others in the past underscore the probable contribution of an inflammatory process related to AD.
This study and the others do not suggest everyone should start taking these medications, but it might be a good topic to discuss with your doctor.
A recent article in the USA Today discussed “the placebo effect” and the debate surrounding it. According to the American Medical Association “a placebo is a substance provided to a patient that the physician believes has no specific pharmacological effect upon the condition being treated.” Perhaps more important to the understanding of the placebo effect is the belief of the patient.
According to a national (USA) survey in 2008 as many as 50% of physicians prescribe placebos at least once a month. The interaction of mind and body that underlies the placebo effect has been known for many years. Tension exists regarding the placebo as some believe it is unethical for doctors to deceive patients by not telling them about the placebo intervention. However, 1 in 20 doctors who prescribed placebos explicitly described them as such to patients. The question is do placebos actually make patients feel better and does this outweigh the responsibility to inform patients about their use.
Across studies with different medical conditions results suggest there is an active treatment effect of placebo and in some cases this may be significant. Factors such as warmth, empathy, duration of doctor-patient interaction and communication of positive expectation might play an important role in healthy outcomes. If these factors are indeed important and contributory to a positive outcome for a patient, the need to deceive is removed.
Perhaps placebo reflects the long held belief that our brains can have an impact on the condition of our body. Perhaps a message delivered by a person that the patient perceives as knowing and within a context the brain perceives as credible can lead to our own body helping to solve the medical issue. Further, given the rather consistent positive impact of “placebos” on patient outcomes it seems time to begin rethinking the therapeutic effect of mind over matter and to integrate such care into the standard regimen of our “health care system.”
Most people, including specialists, tend to focus on the human brain as a cognitive system. Discussion is typically about memory, attention, spatial skills, etc. which is interesting and important. However, the human is much more than a cognitive tool. It is our emotional, relational, motor, and creative system as well.
As we enter a brand new and exciting year (2009) we are offered an opportunity to introspect (always a good thing to do) and do two things: first we should recognize our strengths and keep expressing them. Second, we should recognize our weaknesses and try to correct them. With regard to the relational and emotional parts of our brain, 2009 can be a great year to work on these brain functions.
Kindness and forgiveness with a large dose of positivity is a great place to start. We can actually exercise these functions and brain regions by being nice, forgiving others and apologizing, and attending to the positive in all situations. While this sounds great and probably reflects the “right thing to do” it is not easy. Human nature, perhaps our DNA massaged over many years, has become resistant to such behaviors.
Maybe you can join me in 2009 by trying to do one nice thing for another and yourself every day, forgive when the situation arises and do not ever be afraid to apologize, and declare aloud a positive aspect for every situation. Your brain will be exercised in relational and emotional functions and will feel better about itself which means you will feel better about yourself!
Happy New Year!