Friday, July 06, 2007

An Active Mind Is a Healthy Mind

How many studies do we have to see before we accept that exercising our brains makes them highly likely to be healthy throughout our lives? The Chicago Aging Study from the Rush University Medical Center has just released results of yet another aspect of their large, multi-year study. This time, more 700 than folks with an average age of 80 were observed. The people who regularly and consistently engaged in cognitively stimulating activities--reading the newspaper, playing chess, seeing plays, reading and visiting the library--were 2.6 times less likely (almost three times less likely!) to develop dementia and Alzheimer's than those who did not engage in such activities. Even mild cognitive impairment, typically associated with age, was greatly delayed and reduced.

I find it interesting that so many of the activities described were interactive ones. In other words, other people were involved, as in a chess partner or seeing a play or going to the library. I believe we will find in future studies that positive interactions with others is a significant method of motivating us to keep our minds in gear.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Chocolate Is Happiness

We've known for quite some time that eating dark chocolate can lower blood pressure and help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. But now, due to research at the University of Cologne led by Dr. Dirk Taubert and published in this month's JAMA, we know that very small amounts (30 calories) of dark chocolate eaten regularly (actually every day in the study) can have a significant effect. What is small? Just one small square of the usual-sized chocolate bar of the $1.99 (or more, depending on how fancy you get) type.

There are two things I love about this study, OK, three: (l) chocolate is really good for us (if we don't eat too much); (2) small amounts make a difference; and (3) like so many other things about our bodies and minds, regular, consistent intake of small to moderate amounts of dark chocolate is the key to maximizing the healthy effects and lowering cardiovascular risk (around 8% in the study, which is significant). So savoring that tiny sliver of delicious, dark chocolate placed beside your coffee cup in your neighborhood French bistro really makes sense. No need for guilt. Instead, feel grateful for cocoa polyphenols!

This news was big enough to make the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle today. We love our food, especially chocolate, here in the Bay Area.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

More Transitions

Quixit, Inc., the company I started in 2005 to distribute scientifically based casual online games that focus on specific cognitive skills, such as attention and memory, was acquired yesterday by SBT, a French firm based in Lyon, France. As of today, I will no longer be affiliated with the new company, now called HappyNeuron, Inc. In my roles as CEO of neuroscience technology companies, Quixit and previously Scientific Learning Corporation, I have enjoyed getting to know the scientists, researchers, journalists, publishers, and many others so keenly interested in trying to figure out how to add to our knowledge base about healthy lifestyle choices, the impact of nutrition and exercise on brain health, and the major effects of mental stimulation in keeping our minds healthy and agile. So much is known yet so little has made its way to most people. And there is so much work that needs to be done. I look forward to the now-frequent research reports coming out almost on a weekly basis from respected research institutions on these topics and applaud those in the trenches working to prevent and treat diseases of the mind.

I continue to be curious about and interested in brain fitness and how we all can lower the probabilities of age-related cognitive decline, especially Alzheimer's and other kinds of dementia. I've seen first-hand how devastating the effects can be on the patient, family, and friends. The good news? We can all hope and expect that we will see great strides in our lifetimes in what we know about these horrific diseases of the mind.

Change typically forces new learning and is an excellent way to keep our brains in shape. So change is in the air for me and I welcome this opportunity to move into something new and different.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Evening: Conflict, Regret, Resolution, Peace

I have recently gone through losing my mother first to dementia and then to death. I of course felt that my experiences were unique. And probably universal, although knowing how exactly is a little difficult. The movie, Evening, proves that lots of other people have probably lived through similar situations. The fights between siblings (just too much tension builds up). The last gasp of incredible focus and energy that comes from saying good-bye. The memories that both warm and invade almost every moment. The tears. The regrets. The guilt. The love. The amazing ability of the mind to worry about mistakes and to grasp redemption and resolution and come to peace.

I was lucky enough to see an early preview of Evening at the beautiful, restored art deco theater, the Smith Rafael Center in San Rafael, California, also the home of the California Film Institute, sponsor of the Mill Valley Film Festival. The cast of this film is truly amazing: Vanessa Redgrave and her daughter, Natasha Richardson, Meryl Street and her daughter, Mamie Gummer; Glenn Close, Claire Danes, Eileen Atkins, Patrick Wilson, and Hugh Dancy. Just to see all these incredible actors in one film was a wonderful experience.

The director, Lajos Koltai (formerly a cinematographer of films such as Being Julia) and one of the writers, Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer Prize winner for his novel, The Hours, were on hand for Q&A after the film. The film was inspired by Susan Minot's beloved novel.

Asked if the film is a "chick flick," both Cunningham and Koltai said, emphatically, "No!" I agree. It explores universal conflicts that come up between parents and children, between siblings, and between memories, yearnings, and a desire to feel that we've lived every moment to its fullest and made the best decisions that we could have made, that we loved well and lived well.

A lovely film. It will be coming out in theaters on June 29. Try to see it.

Friday, June 15, 2007

In Search of Memory

In Search of Memory, the Emergence of a New Science of Mind, by Eric R. Kandel, is not what I had in mind for summer reading. I was looking for a mystery when I wandered over to the nonfiction area of my little neighborhood bookstore. Kandel's book looked interesting, was highly portable in paperback, and a possible choice for my upcoming plane trip. I knew Eric Kandel was at Columbia and was a Nobel Prize winner for his work on the mind but that was about it.

I read a few pages, overcame my belief that this one could likely be dry as dust and bought it. It turns out that Mr. Kandel is quite a writer in addition to being a great scientist. He pulled me in immediately with his descriptions of his early life in Vienna and I never got out again. From there, I was whisked into his love affair with medicine and science and the mind, not to mention real people, like his wife and children. He intertwined his love of art, music, fine wines, and good friends with his fascination with the behavior of the aplysia's cells and the biology of memory. He also managed to sneak in a chronology of scientific research on cognition and the mind from its early beginnings until today and in an understandable, extremely interesting way.

He included a poem, written by his young daughter, titled (of course) "The Aplisa." "An aplisa is like a squishy snail. In rain in snow in sleet in hail. When it is angry, it shoots out ink. The ink is purple, not pink. An aplisa cannot live onland. It doesn't have feet so it can't stand. It has a very funny mouth, And in winter it goes to the south." Kandel was clearly obsessed and his family knew it. The rest of us on the planet should be thankful for his compulsive curiosity about what was happening in the cells of the aplysia. We are also fortunate that a number of other creative scientists were beginning to think about the mind differently than in the past at around the same time so they could build on each others' work. They were beginning to realize that so many of the mind's functions are controlled by the biology of the cell. Amazing that understanding the chemical reactions in the cells of one of earth's smallest organisms has enabled gigantic progress in our understanding of what we like to think is one of the most complicated organs on earth, the human brain.

For a magnificent review, please take a look at the Neurophilosophy blog. Better yet, read the book. A great story. A wonderful life.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Sicko: We Must Change US Health Care Now

Last night I was invited to the first Bay Area screening of Sicko, Michael Moore's new film about health care. Funny, tragic, entertaining, thoughtful, and energizing; see it! The audience cheered and clapped in a standing ovation for almost 10-15 minutes, similar to the reception the film received at the Cannes Film Festival.

Mr. Moore was there for a Q&A. "What can we do to change things? How long will it take us?" were recurring questions in different guises from the audience. In other words, why do so many other countries in the world look after their citizens' health through universal health care but in the US, health care is seen as just another business with the P&L always top of mind, resulting in horrendous treatment for many of our poorer citizens, in debt and bankruptcy for those unable to meet the financial obligations caused by a disease or accident, or in many people avoiding proper care and treatment, resulting in even higher costs for the whole system and for taxpayers.

His answer, "First, we can prevent many health problems by eating fruits and vegetables and moving our bodies." He pointed out that he is now walking 30 minutes a day and has made small changes in his diet that have enabled him to lose 30 pounds in the last three months. And he's right, prevention is the best way to deal with the cost of getting sick in our country and lifestyle changes can result in lower cholesterol, lower blood pressures, and healthy blood sugar levels--all keys to preventing major chronic and debilitating diseases.

Secondly, "follow the money." He encouraged the audience to find out which of our elected officials--Senators, Representatives, the President--are getting financial support (and how much) from the health care industry. We really need to know who has a vested interest in not changing our system, resulting in exclusion of people from adequate care who can't pay and escalating drug and patient care prices. The culprits are pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, and for-profit HMOs and hospital chains. But even more important and unethical are our elected officials who take big bucks in campaign support from these entities. Of course, they are then beholden to the health care industry and little to no change is the result. We voters and citizens need to demand that this unethical practice stop, immediately.

Given the demographics of our country and the inevitable ills of the aging Boomer generation, the US must solve this health care problem fast. Everyone needs adequate access to good health care. Because we care. Because it the right thing to do. Because it is the only way to keep our country strong.

As Michael Moore pointed out, "We are a wealthy nation. We can find billions when we need to kill people (as in Iraq). Why not use our money to help people live?"

Saturday, May 19, 2007


I flew in on the red-eye from the West Coast to Atlanta, rented a car, and drove the rental car 45 minutes northeast to the small town where my mother lives just as the sun was coming up. I’ve made this trip from west to east coast numerous times over the last few months and several times in a crisis mode, as I am now. My mother has gotten weaker and smaller and more vulnerable with each passing week, kicked off by a debilitating virus at the end of December.

Bleary-eyed, I walk into her darkened room at the assisted living home at around 5:30 a.m. The hospice caretaker is writing on a pad, sitting quietly in the often-reupholstered wing chair, my mother’s favorite place to sit, her grandfather’s chair. Many of her things have been moved to make room for a large, steel-framed hospital bed, with protective bars along the sides of the bed, that takes up most of the space. I slip the cold, metal bars down so I can move closer. I take my mother’s hand, smaller but still soft and smooth, in mine. Her brown eyes open and widen, with great intensity.

“It’s you,” her lips move into an almost smile, with great effort. She looks at me directly, extremely focused.

“Yes, I’m here, Mother. I love you.” I reach down to gather her frail, thin shoulders in my arms to hug her, to touch her, to let her know how much I love her. My ear is close to her lips.

“I’m dying.” She whispers, slowly and deliberately. She pauses. “Good-bye. I love you.”

I hug her. Tighter. Tears flood my eyes and spill in waves down my cheeks. Emotion clogs my throat. My mother has always, even when I was a small child, talked to me with unembellished honesty, sometimes entrusting me with secrets and knowledge well beyond what a child normally receives. She always tried to help me understand why things happen the way they do or the rationale behind her beliefs and values and those of others. She taught me to look at people as individuals. Once again she is sharing her honest assessment of the situation, at once bringing me into the inner circle of her secret thoughts, collaboratively, helping me to understand, and preparing me for what is ahead in her usual thoughtful, loving, and thoroughly open way. And this time, I know that she has summoned from somewhere deep inside her the energy to focus just on me, let me know how much she loves me, and help me with this transition I’m about to experience. She has somehow put her dementia and physical frailty aside to deliver this intense affection directly to me. The nicest gift I could ever receive.

This transition is a much larger one than I expected. I am no longer part of the sandwich generation. My mother has been my only living parent. I will no longer receive direct support and sustenance from my mother, although the dementia that my mother experienced much reduced her ability to express these emotions in the last years. But I still felt them every time her brown eyes got big and excited when I entered her room. She has never failed to recognize me and rejoice in seeing me, in her intense but increasingly smaller ways.

Suddenly, I am no longer arranging my schedule and that of my family to fly to see her as often as possible. I won’t be taking her on shopping excursions, to see movies or museums, or out to lunch and dinner. I won’t be making time in my life for calls and visits or analysis of her prescriptions, medical care, or bills. I won’t be ordering yellow roses or lavender orchids, her favorites, to brighten her room—and her face. I won’t be seeing her big brown eyes widen with joy when I come through the door. The void is huge. The transition is difficult. But I know that death is part of life. My mother taught me that.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A Strong, Active Body Helps Build a Strong, Active Mind

This week's Newsweek has a done a nice job of emphasizing and summarizing the critical part that physical exercise plays in brain fitness. It's true: whatever is good for our hearts is twice as good for our brains. Exercise helps our bodies efficiently route oxygen to our hearts and brains. I, for one, believe that the complexities of everyday exercises and sports, like walking or dancing or swimming, call on multiple cognitive and physical skills, which we keep trying to separate but are forever and crucially entwined. They should just go together, along with nutrition, as important pieces of the fitness puzzle.

I like the suggestion in the article of an "exercise snack plan": run up and down steps in your house during a TV commercial, walk around your office floor, pace when you talk on the telephone, etc. Hopefully, these will be taken as starters or supplements with ramp-ups in activity the goal.

I personally find that regular exercise enables me to sleep less, sleep better, de-stress, makes my mood more positive and balanced, and energizes me. How can all of that not be good for my brain? Nevermind the other skills needed for my dance class, for example: long-term memory of the basic routine and choreography, concentration (or I'll look like a fool), balance, rhythm, short-term memory to adapt to my partner or the teacher's instructions, hand-eye coordination, visual-spatial skills so I don't bump into the other people, deductive reasoning (what comes next in the sequence?), etc., etc. Wonderful cross-training for the mind and the body and the mind-body connection.

Of course, the danger is that folks will think physical exercise is the magic bullet for brain fitness. As the Newsweek article points out, "Having a big, gorgeous, healthy brain isn't enough, of course; it also has to be full." Yep, exercising those neurons (also called learning) once we've gone them is also a must.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Our Brains Keep Working, Even in Illness

I made a special trip to see my Mother for a few days around her birthday. Her brown eyes always get big and round with excitement when I walk into the Renaissance wing of Remington House, the assisted living facility where she lives in northeast Georgia about fifty miles from Atlanta. She usually walks herself, using her blue aluminum walker for support, around and around and around the nurses' station in the center of the wing and is often seated at one of the colonial-style sofas in the entrance way, watching all the comings and goings of visitors, residents, and staff. She concentrates, intently, purposefully. Her back is bent with severe arthritis but she lifts her upper body and chin and manages to seemingly observe everything and everyone. She never speaks except when spoken to although she is always polite, her good Southern upbringing never failing her.

I asked her, very specifically, "what would you like for your birthday? Something special to eat?" I imagined myself running all over Atlanta trying to find gourmet goodies. Mother always enjoyed trying new things and loved good food.

She wrinkled her brow and whispered, simply "oysters, fried oysters." Whenever I'm there, I always ask, "want to go to a movie, want to go for a ride, want to go to a restaurant, want to go to an art museum?" And my mother always nods yes, her eyes brightening.

So I did race all over Atlanta to find fresh, shucked oysters, along with tartar and tangy tomato sauce. And we had really fresh, lovely oysters breaded in corn meal and fried in the Remington House kitchen. A very special birthday dinner.

When I left the next day, Mother escorted me, slowly moving her walker along, to the double doors of the entrance way and stood there, balancing one hand on the walker and raising the other. She waved as I drove down the long drive to the highway, until we could no longer see each other. Just as she always used to, my entire life, as I have returned and left again, over and over. I've missed her sweet waving, I realized, in these last years. And this time, more poignantly, I felt the familiar tear well up in the corner of my eye. I was seeing a remnant of my deeply feeling, emotional, articulate, intelligent, creative Mother, who loved me with great affection and suppport. I was remembering that person, who I haven't seen in a long time.

My mother has frontotemporal dementia, or FTD, little known by the general public but well known among physicians as the second most prevalent kind of dementia, trailing only Alzheimer's in the US with as many as 4.5 million people afflicted. A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle Magazine stated: "Though many similarities with Alzheimer's disease exist, the key difference is that FTD patients display only limited memory loss. Results of intelligence tests can remain normal, and individuals with unimpaired motor control can stay athletic for a long time, conveying the illusion of good health." My mother has almost perfect long-term memory, even today. She can look at a photo and tell you the time of day it was taken (along with the date and the middle names of the people in it).

In typical FTD pattern, my mother was struck in her early 60s (many show signs in their 40s and 50s). Always an excellent money manager, my mother began compulsively subscribing to magazines, with piles of at least 30 different ones around the house; she became positive she would win Publishers' Clearinghouse. She then began writing checks for every imaginable contest on TV and in the mail, followed by checks to anyone who asked. She supported Democrats and Republicans, pro-life and pro-abortion, and orphans in Central America.

My mother had a wry sense of humor and loved all things intellectual and artistic. She rarely missed giving a strong opinion, which she voiced, in most conversation. We noticed that for a person who always laughed and cried easily, she began to have little facial affect, no sense of humor, and in fact, very little emotional reaction to anything, no matter how deeply it must have affected her. She simply stared at the casket when my father was buried, never shedding a tear, never reacting at all in any way. We thought she was depressed, as many family members and even doctors do when FTD appears.

Dr. Bruce Miller at the University of California at San Francisco has been studying FTD for a number of years and has found another interesting pattern in many patients with FTD, one which my mother also experienced. His team's research has found that FTD ". . . has been traced to a mutation in a gene called tau, which leads to the destruction of a part of the cortex used for speech and social skills but which may spare regions for visual perception." As a result, "patients stopped talking, withdrew socially, became irritable, developed odd obsessions and failed at memory tests. But . . . the most severe problems were preceded by a period of exceptional creativity. " Dr. Miller notes that many people with FTD became prolific artists in many different media.

My mother's decline in judgment, language, and social skills was definitely preceded by a burst of creativity. She had always been creative, playing the piano, writing, decorating, designing, drawing. But she suddenly began obsessively composing music and painting oils, which now decorate the high wall of her Renaissance House room. Experts believe that "creativity may not be so much a direct product . . . but rather part of a person's way of coping with the disease."

How amazing that our brains continue to compensate for weakness, always seeking to learn and grow, even in the midst of grave illness.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Boomers Put Our Own Twist on Exercise

I've just returned from my health club. My NIA teacher didn't show up (a rare occurrence) so I headed for the weight room where I flipped through magazines and chatted with one of my fellow NIA classmates, while zipping along on the recumbent bike for 20 minutes, scooted through the weight machines, and then headed to the pool for a swim. For some reason, I started noticing that 99% of the people in the room were leading-edge Boomers. Then I began to think about how weight rooms had changed. No more Nordic Track machines. Only one stair-climbing machine and one stationary bike. Now, there are stretching machines, rows of recumbent bikes (great for weak or injured knees), elliptical motion training machines (also good on knees), and big orange and green plastic balls for Pilates and yoga stretches. And of course, many more weight machines. Only one young woman was running on one of the old treadmills.

It turns out my observations are on the money. The research folks at American Sports Data inform me that "older Americans are transforming the landscape of physical fitness." It turns out that the number of people who are 55 belonging to health clubs surged by 33% from 1999-2004 whereas the 18-34 crowd had zero growth in memberships.

". . .the compound measurement of Yoga/Tai Chi has grown by 118% . . . . At 11.2 million participants, Recumbent Cycling, a particularly back-friendly exercise. . . has grown 66%. . . . surpassed only by Fitness Walking and Aquatics." And the conclusion? "Mature exercise enthusiasts are not merely playing havoc with abstract fitness statistics; they are rocking the foundations of fitness facilities across the U.S. "

Interesting facts: Pilates participation has increased 506% during the period of the research report, elliptical training machines, 306%, Yoga, 118%, Nordic ski machines, -40%, aerobic rider exercise, -58%, stair-climbing machines, -29%.

These are great trends to contemplate. Boomers as a group are continuing to value physical exercise and fitness as one important key to a vibrant, active life. And, if we need to find new exercises that put less strain on our joints and backs, then we find them and we continue to stay fit. Boomers may yet succeed at making the concept of wellness and prevention a perfectly natural part of our culture and thinking.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Brain: Work on Working

I think it's entirely appropriate, and maybe a bit poetic, that I waited for a couple of weeks to write about findings on procrastination. Maybe they were just new findings for John Tierney, now blogging for the NY Times. He alerted me to them. But I don't care. It got me off the task at hand and into the mood to contemplate various aspects of my life before completing that or any other work. It seems that Piers Steel, a psychologist from the University of Calgary, has published several papers on the subject of procrastination and now has an online survey to measure how much of a procrastinator you are and help you figure out ways to stop it. Your filling it out also helps with his research. Tierney's right. There's no more alluring way to dawdle than to fill out a questionnaire. So have at it. I did.

I thought these excerpts from the site's Treatment page, presumably for those of us who have a really bad case, were helpful: "Too tired to work" was one of the main reason students use to explain their procrastination. . . . Work, especially work, that requires intensive concentration or physical exertion, becomes increasingly unpleasant when our "get-up-and-go" has "got-up-and-gone." So Steele goes on to mention the importance of sleep and exercise as well as structured goal setting, that is specific, challenging, realistic enough to really do, and with few choice points. Many of us go off the rails whenever we have choices. For example, do I search endlessly on the Internet for my old high school buddy or do I write the proposal I need to finish? Do I get a snack or organize my tax documents? etc. etc. I'm reminded of the story that Mrs. Melville chained Herman to his desk while he wrote Moby Dick. Who knows how he might have spent his time otherwise?

And the treatise on "learned industriousness:" "You may have heard that success breeds success, and this appears to be true. . . .If you start a new task, and you fail the first few times, instead of learned industriousness occurring, you might get learned helplessness. . . .When you start a new task, it is very important that you structure it so that your earlier efforts lead to success."

Uh-oh, I meant to do that. I know all these ideas are good for me. And I'm good at them too, but usually only if there's a deadline and real money involved. Need to assign this one to my brain: work on working.

Oh and, when you go to fill out your online survey (why not be distracted and amused for a few?), don't miss the Quotations page. Hilarious!

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Unhappy Meals from Michael Pollan

Everyone should read "Unhappy Meals" by Michael Pollan in today's NY Times Magazine. As Pollan summarizes in the very first line, "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." Debunking the various "nutritionist" food fads that have appeared over the last 20+ years and including the high-carb, low-fat diets, the no-fat diet, the additive craze to highly processed foods, and the fiber and low-cholesterol approaches, Pollan makes an excellent argument for just food. He reiterates his earlier advice: if there are more than five ingredients, don't buy it. Also don't buy it if there are things in it you've never heard of or can't pronounce.

Pollan makes the case persuasively that we've been held hostage by the "you can eat more if..." crowd. The low-fat, high-carb craze made this country significantly more obese through the 80s and 90s, which then gave rise to the opposite extreme of high-protein and high-fat Atkins diets, no panacea either.

We should just be eating less. Look at all the studies that show that calorie restriction makes us live longer and reduces the probabilities of many diseases, including cancer. We should be eating more leaves and less seeds (grains), Pollan states. We should avoid additives like corn syrup and stick with the real thing: corn kernels. And we should use meat as a condiment to enhance all the vegetables we're consuming.

Pollan states that we know very little about nutrition. And the way we analyze it doesn't really work since we have to isolate vitamins, for example, instead of figuring out how they work together in our bodies for better health. It's an ensemble cast and solo analysis doesn't get us much. In fact, it's led us down the wrong paths time after time (oat bran in the 80s, for example, and margarine as a healthy alternative to butter).

To add insult to injury, medicine reactively deals with the problems of our new approach to eating with more and more palliatives for diabetes, heart disease, and cancer instead of educating folks about diet as a way to prevent these chronic and horrible diseases.

The first time I really thought about meat as a condiment and the dangers of processed food was in the early 80s when I started reading Jane Brody's columns in the NY Times. And then in 1985, I bought her cookbook, Good Food, and I read the entire, huge intro, which discusses all of these topics and more. But the best part are the recipes. I still use my now-tattered copy of Good Food. I love the recipes because they taste good. She never sacrificed taste for any fad but still paid attention to whole grains, low and unsaturated fat, and produced a vast variety of recipes, using an enormous spectrum of foods, mostly vegetables and whole grains. I probably have Ms. Brody to thank for my interest in food and nutrition as a path to wellness (and therefore prevention), my interest in organic foods (because of the additives in the growing process), and just plain good cooking and eating (although I'll admit to being enthusiastic about this part my whole life).

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Creativity and the Brain

Last night I saw Bobby McFerrin in concert, accompanied by 12-singer Voicestra. Those 12 voices included well-known and great voices, like that of Janis Siegel, one of the original singers in the Manhattan Transfer. As the program stated, "Voicestra serves as rich compositional palate for Bobby McFerrin's expeditions into the musical universe." Every single rendition we saw on the stage was totally improvised, thoroughly entertaining, original, and energizing. For those of you who may not know Bobby McFerrin, he started his career with that very famous tune, "Don't Worry Be Happy" and has gone on to become one of the most original musicians in the world, easily moving from classical to opera to jazz to any other kind of music and using his voice as a musical instrument. Improvisation is clearly his sweet spot. He even included the audience in some of the improvisations. My advice: travel for miles and miles to get a ticket to a Bobby McFerrin concert!

As I watched the energy and expertise and great entertainment on the stage, I couldn't help but think about the part that creativity plays in brain health.

And along those lines--thanks to Dave Munger of Cognitive Daily for pointing me to recent research by Eviatar and Just that looked at how the brain processes irony and metaphor. I think we need creative skills to figure out language puzzles like metaphors and irony. Using fMRI studies, the researchers discovered that our brains process common metaphors and ironic statement differently from ordinary language, going beyond the usual language centers (usually on the left side of the brain if you're right-handed) to include different areas on both sides of the brain. For reference, regular literal language all gets translated in the usual language centers. I'm not surprised, given the research that has already shown that creative endeavors and creative people use many parts of the brain for creative expression.

I suspect that is why creative expression gets good marks for keeping our brain healthy and fit and reducing the probabilities of Alzheimer's and dementia. I'm just trying to visualize the fMRIs of McFerrin and Voicestra's brains during that concert: lots of big splashes of color all over both sides, I suspect. I also wonder what happened to our brains in the audience as we watched this creativity in process. We were not passive. We jumped at the chance to interact when McFerrin pointed to us. I bet our brains were pretty busy, too (on both sides).

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Mental Workouts Delay Alzheimer's in Mice

More evidence builds that mental activity can "dramaticlly delay the progress of Alzheimers' disease."

According to Reuters' Will Dunham, "Researchers at the University of California-Irvine studied hundreds of mice altered to make them develop the plaques and tangles in brain tissue that are considered hallmarks of Alzheimer's Disease in people." The mice received "brain training," which in this case was figuring out a maze in water and which was made available four times a day for a week at intervels between two and 18 months of age. The mice that were exposed to this learning had significantly slower build-up of the beta amyloid protein, which has been shown to be the culprit in the "gooey clumping" outside nerve cells. These mice also experienced less build-up of the protein that causes "twisted fibers" in brain cells.

The research results have just been published in the Journal of Neuroscience. Kim Green, one of the researchers, noted that research is planned which looks at the effects of more frequent and intensive learning experiences and whether they might lead to longer effects.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Study Finds Happy Neuron Helped Brain Activity

The Des Moines Register published a nice summary article today by Dawn Sagario about brain health and how to maintain it. In addition to suggestions about learning new languages and physical exercise, the article also described the recently released results of the pilot study led by Dr. Bob Bender, a geriatrician in Des Moines. The study was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The "Brain Wellness" study included regular, consistent physical exercise, nutritution advice, meditation, and regular mental workouts with Happy Neuron games. The participants who complied with this program had positive results, including significantly more brain activity, as measured by pre-and post-PET scans and clinical examinations. Dr. Bender and his team are very enthusiastic about the potential for prevention, using these lifestyle choices and brain exercises like Happy Neuron.

The illustration above is by Mark Marturello/Register Illustration.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Brain Fitness Buzz

The last couple of weeks have been filled with media reports about brain fitness programs. The NY Times weighed in on the topic on the front page on December 27 with "As Minds Age, What's Next? Brain Calisthenics?" This article was quickly syndicated across the US and around the world (the International Herald-Tribune) and became the number one-emailed article of the week. I think we can say with some certainty that brain fitness is a topic of interest to millions and millions of people. Several blogs picked up the drum beat, too. The Today show on NBC put their own spin on the topic on Tuesday morning. Happy Neuron was one of the programs showcased in the NY Times and on the Today show.

I think it's great that the media is picking up on the very real interests of so many people, who are really thinking hard and searching high and low for good science on keeping their mental edge as the years go by (another way to say prevention of Alzheimer's and dementia). I admit that I was irritated by two comments: (l) "just do crosswords" because we know from numerous research studies that crosswords may be fun but don't do much for the brain--they're just too one-dimensional; and (2) why turn to software for brain exercise? why not do something free like learn a language or learn to play a new musical instrument? Hey, last time I checked, those two learning adventures were far from free.

Let's look at the real value of sites like Happy Neuron. Most of us would prefer to take a walk in the park every day but some days it's rainy or we don't have time so we hit the treadmill. Some days we don't have time for learning the cello or practicing Chinese either so one convenient thing to do is go online and exercise specific cognitive skills, like memory, concentration, reasoning, visual-spatial and language skills--all keys to learning and everyday living.

I'm extremely glad that awareness is building: brain exercise should be a part of a healthy lifestyle just like good nutrition and physical exercise. All are critical to our overall health and quality of life.