Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Brain Health: We're Starting to Test the Right Things

As the director of a longevity center at a respected research institution said to me recently, "We just haven't figured out what to test. We haven't been creative enough." She was referring to our discussion of what kinds of exercises really keep our brains fit. That seems to be changing.

Jonathan McNulty of the School of Medicine and Medical Science, University College, Dublin, has tried a different approach. And it works. His team found that simple yet intensive memorization followed by a rest period resulted in ". . . both metabolic changes in the brain and improved memory performance." The 55- to 70-year-old volunteers were given six weeks for intensive rote memorization tasks, such as memorizing a newspaper article or poetry, of 500 words. They then had six weeks of rest.

Here's the kicker: when tested immediately after the memorization work, there was no change in brain metabolism or memory performance. But after the six-week rest, all of the volunteers showed improvements in verbal and episodic memory (the ability to relate story or tell a joke).

This reminds me of a trick I've long used: if I have a problem I need to figure out, I assign my brain the task, usually before going to sleep, and forget about it. Typically, later (and sometimes immediately when I wake up the next morning), a solution or at least a way of thinking about the problem pops up (without being summoned) in my mind. Our brains clearly need some down time to work on their own without our conscious interference.

Recently, there have been several studies using the Stroop test. That's the one with color words written in a different color (the word blue written in yellow, for example) and you're asked to identify the color of the letters. The distraction of automatic reading of the word makes it challenging to identify the letter color. Several researchers have shown that intensive work on the Stroop test (or similar tests or games) can substantially improve driving skills. Why? Because driving requires concentration--the ability to override distractions and automatic responses and choose the required response.

To me, these studies test the right things and are beginning to prove that practice on cognitive process (fluid intelligence) is just as important as acquired knowledge (crystallized intelligence). It takes both to keep our mental edge.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

A Little Spice in Our Lives: Good Brain Food

In my Peace Corps days as a volunteer teacher in North Africa, I vividly remember buying spices from large burlap spice bags at the Thursday morning open-air market on the main street of my little town, Grombalia, Tunisia. The women selling the spices had colorful orange and brown scarves wrapped around their heads with long, silver earrings dangling from their ears in the Berber style . They were friendly and I often bought spices, taking their advice on how to use them in cooking. That's where I learned to love turmeric, also called curcumin. It's a bright yellow spice which colors everything in its path yellow (including your hands if you're not careful) and is a key ingredient in curry, which accounts for the yellow color of most curries. I like curries of all kinds, mild to spicy, but I learned from the Berber women that turmeric is also great on baked or roasted fish.

Lately, several studies have looked at the effects of turmeric on the prevention of Alzheimer's. Previous research efforts have noted that the rate of Alzheimer's in people over 65 in the US is four times that of the same demographic in India. In fact, in some towns in India, less than one percent of the population over 65 have Alzheimer's. Naturally, diet is one place to look for the differences. And yes, turmeric is a grand antioxidant, which appears to significantly help prevent the plaques and tangles and related inflammation of Alzheimer's in the brain.

This finding, the latest in a series of similar findings over the last few months, came from research at the University of California, Los Angeles, led by Dr. Sally Frautschy.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Pilates' Small, Powerful Moves: Good for Our Brains

Preliminary studies are showing that some people with Parkinson's Disease can benefit greatly from regular, consistent Pilates classes and exercises. The mind-body connection that Pilates offers may help with brain disorders that affect the body's muscles and movement, like Parkinson's. Sounds like a great reason to make Pilates a regular part of every one's exercise routine.

I've been a big believer in Pilates for several years so I hope that researchers will look carefully at the mind-body effects of exercises like Pilates. Longitudinal studies, along the lines of those looking at lifestyle choices that reduce the probabilities of diseases like Alzheimer's, would be great to see.

I also understand what is meant by the "small, powerful movements" of Pilates. They're challenging to do but deeply satisfying. As in Yoga, breathing, balance, and concentration are important (and good exercise for the brain and the body). Pilates also works on the body's core strength and flexibility and is particularly good for increasing abdominal strength and therefore reducing lower back tension and pain.

Happiness Is All in Our Brains

I've been fascinated by the recent research findings on happiness. As in so many other areas of neuroscience, scientists have assumed that our happiness quotient is hard-wired in our brains. We humans are sort of stuck with a glass that's either half-full or half-empty. Period. And for some people, there's nothing in the glass. We have a "happiness setting." And guess what? Just as researchers have found that our brains are plastic and capable of change in so many other areas--it's beginning to look like we can change our happiness settings, too--short-term and long-term.

For many years, the emphasis has been on finding a pill that will lift depression. Although many people have been helped enormously by these pharmacological palliatives, many others have not been helped or have had serious side-effects and complications from the drugs. Finally, neuropsychologists and neuroscientists are asking the other side of the question: what makes us happy? how can we feel happier? are there simple ways to lift our spirits to chronic happiness? optimism, even? And do we even need to discuss how critical these feelings are to our quality of life at every age?

The holidays are an especially good time to release the findings of these studies, given that so many people feel particularly lonely and depressed during this time of year.

OK, so what can we do? As psychologist Ed Diener of the University of Illinois says, "Set-point is not destiny." Promising methods coming out of the research include (l) focusing on "signature" strengths (through a questionnaire) and then using those strengths to choose more satisfying daily activities; and (2) thinking of three good things that happen each day just before going to sleep. According to Sonja Lyubomirsky from the University of California, Riverside, these two exercises made a significant difference in people's happiness when they regularly and consistently used them. Of course, as the pu-pu platter of happiness exercises that are proven to work increases, we will each need to experiment to find our own best method.

In other research on happiness, several researchers have been looking at the link between money and happiness. Most people seem to believe that money buys happiness. In fact, folks who move from abject poverty to a more comfortable relationship with money do become measurably happier. But as we move up the wealth scale, it appears that money becomes less and less important to our overall happiness. Makes sense.

I think Diener has it right when he points out that happiness is really all about "process and striving." What he didn't say, in my mind, is more important: happiness is all about feeling purpose in life.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Compound in Red Wine: Endurance and Longevity Go Up, Obesity Goes Down

Nicholas Wade's article in today's NY Times summarizes even more research results coming out of the studies of mice that consumed resveratrol, one of the main ingredients in red wine. The study of resveratrol, given in huge quantities to the mice, may open up a whole new field of drugs to prevent diabetes and reduce obesity, which in and of itself is likely to lower the incidences of stroke and heart attacks, at the very least, and prolong life. This ingredient in red wine has also been shown to dramatically increase endurance and longevity in the mice who took it compared to the ones who didn't. In fact, they resembled "trained athletes" without the training, with lowered heart rate and similar muscle fibers. The latest findings were published in Online Cell and the study was led by Dr. Johan Auwerx at the Institute of Genetics and Molecular and Cellular Biology in Illkirch, France.

The articles and the research point out that the same effects in humans would require the consumption of about 100 bottles of red wine a day. Since that's not possible, it makes sense to wait for the scientists to figure out how to isolate and condense resverarol into capsule form.

For a great series of articles on this research, check out Rob Stein's summaries in the Washington Post of the various aspects of the research: "A second pour of good news about substance in red wine, " "A compound in red wine makes fat mice healthy."and "Red wine compound promises longevity, study finds."

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Routine Sleep Good for Our Brains

Regular, consistent sleep routines along with short naps are good for our brains, as these recent research findings show:

Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine found that doctors who took short naps improved their performance and alertness, compared to a control group who did not take sleep breaks. Previous studies of truck drivers and pilots have found the same thing. In our generally sleep-deprived culture, we might wonder if a little nap (30 minutes or less) might also improve our own alertness and performance. Ironically, our culture dictates that naps are a sign of laziness.

In a finding which I believe is related to the pace and sleep-deprivation that we all think is necessary for good performance, researchers at the University of Virginia studied the "mortality link" and found that jet-lag conditions hasten death in older mice. We may not want to study that one in humans.

Let's face it. More studies than we can count conclude the same thing: regular, consistent sleep, regular, consistent physical exercise, regular, consistent mental stimulation, and a consistently nutritious diet help keep us fit and healthy: body, mind, and probably soul. And equally interesting, to balance all that regular, consistent stuff, we also seem to be programmed to search for new challenges and learn about new things. We're just healthier and happier when we do.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Regular Exercise Increases Our Energy

I love this new finding by University of Georgia researchers, Patrick O'Connor, co-director of the UGA exercise psychology laboratory and a kinesiology professor, and Tim Tuetz, a recent doctoral program graduate. Their findings were published in the November issue of Psychological Bulletin. They found that "sedentary people who completed a regular exercise program reported improved fatigue compared to groups that did not exercise." Further, their analysis found that "every group studied--from healthy adults to cancer patients to those with chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease--benefited from exercise.

Although it may seem odd that using energy by exercising actually gives us more energy, we also know from many previous animal studies that exercise promotes higher levels of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin, in the animals' brains. Once again, the evidence is clear: regular, consistent exercise is just what we're supposed to do.

Personally, I have known for a long time that if I'm really fatigued and burned out, a fast-paced swim or a challenging yoga class or a brisk walk can re-energize me like nothing else. And the more regular exercise I get, the more my body--and yes, my mind, too--cry out for it.

, , , , ,,

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Cross-Train Your Brain!

An article in the Nov.6 Fortune Magazine highlights some very interesting research on the brain's ability to learn skills faster through cross-training rather than through repetitive practice on just one skill. Senior Fortune writer Jerry Useem and Jia Lynn Jang write about Dr. Rachael Seidler's research and J. Cog Neuroscience article.

Traditionally, we have believed that to be good or even expert at a particular skill or activity, we must learn skills specifically related to that activity. Dr. Seidler hypothesized that learning skills across several activities could quicken learning and increase overall expertise. She in fact found that subjects exposed to multiple visuomotor skills (compared to a group that focused on acquiring just one skill) were able to transfer skills and parts of skills to acquire new skills more quickly than the other group. In other words, more experience helped create more neural connections and helped make learning faster for those who "cross-trained." They were able to transfer all or parts of skills they knew to learn new skills so they could not only learn them faster but move to higher levels of expertise more quickly.

The authors go on to give fascinating examples of well-known personalities who "cross-trained" in multiple areas and became expert in multiple skills, using experience in one area to apply to others for quicker learning. A couple of examples: Leonardo da Vinci--architect, painter, sculptor, inventor, mathematician, anatomist; Gordon Parks: Life Photographer, Director of Shaft, author, musician. And Condi Rice--diplomat, university professor and administrator, concert-level pianist who plays with Yo-Yo Ma in her spare time.

Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked to relate his undergraduate training in nuclear propulsion systems to what he's doing today: "I'm not applying those exact skills every day, but it taught me ways to think through problems--visualizing, conceptualizing--that I do use every day. Your mind touches on these resources and you're not even aware of it."

My take-away from these findings: the hypothesis of cognitive reserve makes more and more sense. Cross-training on multiple cognitive skills aids new learning, builds on the brain's experience, and creates new pathways and connections that can in fact build a mental savings account. Cross-training our brains can only help mental agility over time--cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching in that savings account upstairs. As this article points out, "The more varied our skills. . . the more varied the neural pathways in use."

, , , , ,,,

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Slow But Gradual End of Alzheimer's As We Know It

As noted in Sunday's LA Times and this month's Science magazine, November 3 (or 4, depending on which publication you read) marked the hundredth anniversary of Dr. Alois Alzheimer's medical conference presentation of a patient's case with a neurogenerative disease that has come to be known as Alzheimer's Disease. The Neurophilopher's Weblog also did a fine recounting of the history. The LA Times states that another event will also be marked: "the slow but gradual end of Alzheimer's as we know it--and the Americanization of dementia science."

For the last 100 years, scientists have been trying to figure out what causes Alzheimer's plaques and tangles in the brain. Sadly, very few actual advances in therapies have occurred for people who have been diagnosed with AD. But as author Greg Critser points out, President Ronald Reagan and his family's openness about their struggles with AD have motivated researchers to begin looking at AD differently, both in ways to prevent it and therapies to deal with this tragic disease. In the therapeutic arena, stem cell research is one possibility. We know from research on brain plasticity that we can already "rewire" our brains so why not get a little help from transplanted neurons to make connections stifled by AD's plaques and tangles?

On the prevention side, researchers are looking at diet, exercise, mental stimulation, and "dysfunction" of brain cells due to other potentially controllable brain environmental factors, such as the way certain brain cells use glucose. Scientists are realizing that AD does not have to be totally linear in its progression. We are beginning to see solid research on strategies that can prevent or slow down AD and dementia as well as compensation strategies to help the brain create additional connections and pathways through mental stimulation and learning. Many, many scientists are now looking closely at these lifestyle decisions and concluding that it really does matter how you live your life and the choices you make along the way.

, , , , ,,,,