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

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.

Just when I beat my Caffeine Habit!

I was very proud of myself recently when I generated enough determination to quit my perceived addiction to caffeine in the form of coffee. While it is true that I only consumed one cup of coffee in the morning to get my jump on the day, it is also true that my brain demanded that one cup. I know this because when I stopped or missed my cup of coffee I felt a bit sluggish and then the headaches set in if I did not get the fix for several days. We refer to this as an addiction, though some do not like to hear that word to describe their (my) behavior.

After nearly one month of not consuming any coffee and getting through the withdrawal symptoms, I pick up a new research discovery in the Journal of Neuroinflammation (volume 6, 2008) that reports caffeine blocks disruption of blood brain barrier in a rabbit model of Alzheimer’s disease. It seems caffeine consumed in the equivalent of one cup of coffee daily protects against high cholesterol diet induced increases in disruptions of the blood brain barrier, and caffeine might be useful in the treatment of Alzheimer’s.
If high levels of serum cholesterol and disruption of the blood brain barrier are indeed underlying mechanisms in the pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s it suggests I need to reconsider starting my habit again!

The important message in the story is that we continue to monitor the new findings of lifestyle and brain health and change our behavior accordingly. This should not occur in an impulsive way. Rather, the negative effects need to be weighed against the positive effects of particular behaviors. For me, I think I will restart my consumption of coffee, but keep it to ½ cup a day. Moderation is typically a great idea. In the meantime, I will keep an eye out for replication of this finding on the relationship between caffeine and protection against Alzheimer’s.

What Exactly is a Stroke?

Stroke is a clinical term that describes cell death in the brain. Stroke is a permanent and can result in significant functional impairment and even death. There are two types of strokes. The first is the most common and is referred to as ischemia. Nearly 80% of all strokes are ischemic and involves a blockage of blood flow that results in cell death. The other 20% of strokes are hemorrhagic that involves a bleeding outward from a weakened artery wall. As the blood gathers increased pressure can be placed on the surrounding brain tissue causing additional damage to the brain.

Both types of stroke are dangerous and can result in deficits of language, attention, information processing speed, and motor skills. Risk factors for stroke include advanced age, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, smoking, and poor diet. Typical preventative measures for stroke include the same protocol as used for the healthy heart. We have learned relatively recently how important blood flow to the brain is, particularly when we recognize that the brain commands 25% of the blood from every heart beat.

Your Fatty Brain

As part of our ongoing discussion on brain fitness (e.g. brain games) and health lifestyle I have proposed, it is now time to consider the fattiest part of you……your brain.

Your brain, the most miraculous system ever designed in the history of the universe, weighs between two and four pounds and is made up of 60% fat. As a system of your body, it is indeed your fattiest. It is important to understand the role of the fat and how you may keep the fat nice and robust.

One role for the fat in your brain is to insulate neural tracks of cells to propel the electrical impulse carrying information in a rapid way. Without the fat, the brain cells are not insulated and information processing will slow. Many of us complain about how slow our computer is; imagine how tough it must be to suffer a slowing of our own information processing speed.

Research suggests Omega 3 fatty acids are a good source to build or maintain the healthy fat in our system and brain. Indeed, research suggests consumption of Omega 3s can help to fight off dementia. Foods rich in Omega 3s include fish such as salmon, herring, tuna, and sardines. Unsalted nuts such as walnuts are also rich in Omega 3s. It is suggested that we increase our fish intake to several ounces several times a week.

Another important brain boosting food includes fruits and vegetables because they are rich in antioxidants. Antioxidants help to rid the body of oxygen based toxins known as free radicals thought to create breakdown in muscle and tissue. At least one national governing body indicates we should consume five servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

For the New Year consider increasing your intake of fish, fruits and vegetables. Your brain deserves it!