Tag Archives: exercise your brain

The Importance of Sleep for the Brain

Sleep is a highly active time for brain development and brain function. There are four primary stages of sleep including Rapid Eye Movement (REM) when we dream and deep sleep or stage four sleep. It is thought that deep sleep and REM tend to decline with advanced age and these are perhaps the parts of sleep when consolidation of information takes place. As such sleep quantity and quality have a major role in what and how well we process and remember information.

REM sleep occupies about 25% of our total sleep and it is during REM that we dream. We tend to be paralyzed during this part of our sleep so we cannot act out our dreams. Without REM and deep sleep we can become lethargic, depressed, and make mistakes. Significant sleep disorders affect more than 35 million Americans and many more around the world. Sudden sleep is known as narcolepsy and can occur while driving which leads to a high number of fatal car accidents. Sleep Apnea, the first phase of narcolepsy, occurs because of a blockage of the airway and results in sudden gasps for air while sleeping. Apnea is most common in middle age, obese and hypertense males.

When considering lifestyle changes for brain health (e.g. brain fitness, brain games), one of the most important aspects of life is sleep. We tend to not get enough sleep and our brains run on fatigue much of the time. Napping is a lost art and we do not rest enough. As a result, our brains are over-stimulated, stressed, and tired. Consider this blog a permission slip to get a good night sleep and to take a nap sometime this week.

Wine Consumption and Health

A recent study has supported a relationship between an important ingredient in red wine and retardation of the aging process. Resveratrol, an ingredient of some red wines may have some life extending effects in mice and maybe in humans. The mechanism in play is switching the body’s resources from fertility to tissue maintenance. The improved tissue maintenance appears to extend life by reducing the degenerative diseases of aging.

Scientists believe this switching mechanism can be induced by a faminelike diet, known as caloric restriction that extends the life of  rodents by up to 30 percent, but similar effects in humans are not conclusive. Resveratrol has been shown to increase strength, endurance, and speed of lab mice. Findings from studies suggest resveratrol may be effective in mice and humans in smaller doses than previously known. Studies suggest a significant positive effect on aging in mice with dosages that mimic 4-5ounces of wine daily. Researchers believe resveratrol can mimic many of the effects of caloric restriction at doses that can be easily achieved by humans.

So….if you are not predisposed to alcoholism and your doctor has not restricted you from alcohol, one 4-5 ounce glass of red wine a day may indeed promote a healthier aging process.

Do Computerized Brain Regimens Really Help?

This is a typical question raised by the market as the business of computerized brain fitness software grows. It is clear that the human brain is capable of being shaped with greatest growth seen perhaps in the latter rather than younger years. There are a variety of products to choose from and the consumer is correct to have questions about the what and why regarding these software training games.

Research has been published supporting both the short term and long term benefits (five years) of using computerized brain fitness software to improve cognitive skills. A recent study from the University of Michigan showed study participants improved their fluid intelligence after consistent training. Researchers explained the utility of such training due to its complexity and transfer of skill acquisition to multiple cognitive domains, not just to the skill being trained. This is one way computerized training is explained to be better than crossword puzzles that may simply train a procedure.

To the extent that brain fitness software provides novel and complex stimuli (e.g. brain games), is fun, and is practical with application to everyday mental challenges I believe it will survive and thrive. If the software training programs are mundane, non personal and not fun the consumer will likely not remain engaged. The latter is a necessary factor for success of the computerized training.

Consumers would be wise to review the science behind the computerized training, select products that they will use, products that provide training in real world cognitive challenges, and that are fun.

Social Status and Brain Health

The Washington Post reported on a recent study out of the National Institute of Mental Health. The study found that different brain areas are activated when a person moves up or down in social status or sees people who are socially superior or inferior. The brain seemed to activate in a similar manner to winning money.

The scientists indicate that our position in social hierarchies affects motivation as well as physical and mental health. Past research has supported the relationship between social rank and health. For example, persons with a lower social status had a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease and to die early. Psychological effects to include loss of control over one’s environment may be one trigger for the relationship to poor health.

The brain seems to have a hard wiring for hierarchical information and that this information is important to us. Our desire to compete, play to win, and to be motivated are directly linked to brain circuitry.

This most likely explains our civilization’s interest in sports, gaming, and competition. Our own individual struggle to reach our specific potential in areas of school, work, or skill development also fit into this model. It may not be such a stretch to suggest that our drive to personal health, including brain health involves such brain circuitry and that computerized mental exercises that provide explicit feedback on our performance is one tangible example of competitive health behavior.

Click here to read the Washington Post article

Increasing Brainpower

The NY Times recently reported on a new study that showed it is possible to improve brainpower. The study demonstrated that training the brain in particular cognitive or thinking processes actually help to improve those particular processes. This should make sense as the brain is a dynamic system that will respond to environmental input.

The resistance to such belief lies in the long held and erroneous position that the human brain is a rigid and fixed system that is somehow set by age five! We now know the human brain has “plasticity” and can be shaped across the lifespan. In fact, your brain does not know how old it is, it simply wants to be stimulated.

New research from the University of Michigan supports the power of brain fitness (e.g. brain games) on the ability of the brain to acquire new information. Our ability to learn new information historically has been labeled “fluid intelligence.” This tends to be information we did not acquire in school and that we have no background exposure. In contrast, information acquired in school that is over learned is referred to as “crystallized intelligence.”

Researchers found that new learning (fluid intelligence) increased with increased exposure to the training stimuli. They asserted that fluid intelligence can increase with appropriate training. They are not sure how long the gains will last after training stops, but gains are made with intervals of 8 to 19 days of training for 30 minutes a day.

While research is catching up on what probably is a very practical and basic reality: the human brain, like many of our systems is influenced by environmental input. In the case of the brain the stimuli tends to be information that is processed from the outside world. Repetitive brain exercise (e.g. brain games) will have an outcome and it is reasonable to think that it will be positive with regard to learning. And yes, there will also be a neurostructural and neurochemical change as well.

To read the NY Times article, click here

German Scientists Test New Way to Combat Alzheimer’s

German scientists have found success in reversing the plaque buildup in brains of mice. The plaque deposits are one of the hallmark features of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and this finding may lead to viable treatments for humans.

The compound reportedly effectively blocks an enzyme responsible for development of the plaque. The compound attaches itself at the precise site on the cell wall where the toxic action occurs.

When injected directly into the brains of mice, scientists indicate the compound works well. The next step is to determine if the compound can cross the blood brain barrier, the protective shield around the brain. Animal tests have begun to determine if medicines given by mouth or injection have the high rate of efficacy as direct injection into the brain where there was a 50% reduction in plaque formation within four hours. Scientists believe that if the testing on animals goes well a human version could be available in five to ten years.

Lifestyle and Brain Health Early in Life

Two recent studies have further underscored my long held belief that many diseases, including those of the brain, actually begin early in life, perhaps even in childhood. The idea that a disease is proactive demands that we are adopt an equally proactive healthy lifestyle.

One study found that high cholesterol levels in the 40s may raise the chance of developing Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) decades later. The findings presented at the American Academy of Neurology in Chicago studied over 9,000 people in California and found that those with high cholesterol levels between the ages of 40 and 45 were about 50 percent more likely than those with low cholesterol to later develop AD.

Another study from Sweden found those with diabetes in midlife are 1.5 times more likely to develop AD later in life. This study followed over 2000 men for 32 years and while other risk factors for AD were found, the most significant was low insulin secretion in midlife.

These studies and others indicate the lifelong development of AD and that we really should not consider this disease a late life disorder. The studies also underscore our need to develop interventions much earlier in life and to adopt a brain healthy lifestyle (e.g. brain fitness) regardless. Such a lifestyle should be a national priority and begin in early childhood if not earlier.