It was once thought that any brain function lost was irretrievable. Today, research into what’s referred to as “brain plasticity” has proven that this is not the case. On the contrary, your brain continues to make new neurons throughout life in response to mental activity.
Aside from toxicity, our modern lifestyle plays a part in cognitive decline, as described by Dr. Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus at the University of California, who has pioneered research in brain plasticity for more than 30 years.
He founded Scientific Learning Corporation in Oakland, California, and Posit Science in San Francisco; both specialize in science research into brain training software.
Dr. Merzenich’s career arose from an interest in philosophy, and a fascination with the nature and origin of the human persona and individuality, and how brain processes might account for the evolution of our individual abilities. He believed that in those who have learning disabilities or develop psychiatric illnesses, the natural progressions of these brain processes must have encountered errors.
Use it or lose it—the principles of brain plasticity
The inherent plasticity of the brain was discovered some 30 years ago, and not long thereafter, animal models demonstrated that brain deterioration and aging were in fact reversible, provided the appropriate brain engagement. Dr. Merzenich describes brain plasticity as follows:
The basic concept is simple. The brain changes physically, functionally, and chemically, as you acquire any ability or skill. You know this instinctively. Something must be changing as your abilities improve, or as new abilities emerge. You are actually remodeling your brain machinery by ‘practicing’ the skill; those physical changes account for your learning.
Actually what the brain is doing is changing its local wiring, changing the details of how the machinery controlling your behaviour is connected. It’s also changing itself in other physical, chemical, and functional ways. Collectively, those changes account for the improvement or acquisition of any human ability.
You probably haven’t realizd it, but as you acquire an ability–for example, the ability to read–you have actually created a system in the brain that does not exist, that’s not in place, in the non-reader. It [the ability; the brain system that controls the ability] actually evolves in you as it has been acquired through experience or learning.
As Dr. Merzenich explains, your brain is designed and constructed to be stimulated and challenged, and to carefully examine, resolve and interpret your environment. During the early days of humankind’s development, keeping track of the details of immediate human environments was imperative for survival.
Today, however, we tend to try to remove ourselves from the details of life. For example, instead of keeping track of appointments and to-do lists in our head, we use electronic gadgets with reminder features. Our streets are paved and lit, requiring virtually no attention to navigate from one location to another. And if you don’t sufficiently challenge your brain with new, surprising information, it eventually begins to deteriorate.
Generally, by the third or fourth decade in life, you’re in decline,” Dr. Merzenich says. “One of the things that happens across this period is that you go from a period of the acquisition of abilities to largely using abilities that have been acquired earlier in life. By that I mean to say, most of the fundamental skills that you apply in your profession or in your everyday life are things you have mastered at a young age, and you’re now doing them in ‘automatic pilot’ mode.
To a large extent, you’re operating most of your day without really being consciously engaged in the things you’re doing. You’re substantially disengaged: ‘sleepwalking through life.’
This inattention to detail is substantially a product of modern culture. Modern culture is all about minimizing environmental challenges and surprises… about enabling brainless stereotypy in our basic actions so that our brains can be engaged at more abstract levels of operations. We’re no longer interested in the details of things in our world. Because our brains are highly dependent in their functional operations in recording information in detail, they slowly deteriorate. Without that recorded detail, memory and brain speed are compromised.
Contributing factors to cognitive decline, and how to counteract it
With age, brain researchers have found that there’s an increase in “chatter” in your brain. Dr. Merzenich explains:
Your brain becomes less precise in how it’s resolving information as you’re operating and listening in language, as you’re operating in vision, or as you’re operating in controlling your actions. We actually record these ‘noisier’ processes within the brain as you age. In fact, we can correlate the growing ‘chatter’ quite directly with the slowing down of your processing.
You know, every older person is slower in their actions, slower in their decisions, and less fluent in their operations than when they’re younger. They’re slower because the brain basically is dealing with information that is represented in its machinery in a fuzzier, more degraded form.
What research into brain plasticity shows us is that by providing your brain with appropriate stimulation, you can counteract this degeneration. A key factor or ingredient necessary for improving brain function or reversing functional decline is the seriousness of purpose with which you engage in a task. In other words, the task must be important to you, or somehow meaningful or interesting—it must hold your attention. Rote memorization of nonsensical or unimportant items or even heavy work at non-challenging tasks will not stimulate your brain to create new connections or neurons.
Dr. Merzenich has been instrumental in the development of a kind of “brain gym” environment—a computer-based brain-training program that can help you sharpen a range of skills, from reading and comprehension to improved memorization and more. The program is called Brain HQ.
There are some very useful exercises at www.BrainHQ.com that are free, and using them can give a person a better understanding of how exercising your brain can drive it in a rejuvenating direction. Using exercises at BrainHQ, most people, of any age, can drive sharp improvements in brain speed and accuracy, and thereby rewire the brain so that it again represents information in detail,” he says.
“Basically, what you’re doing is reducing the chatter–the ‘noisiness’–of the processes in your brain. That impacts your capacity, for example, to record and remember that information. When the information the brain is shipping around in its machinery is in a degraded form, when it’s fuzzy, when it’s imprecise, all of the uses that it makes of it are also degraded. When you rejuvenate those elementary abilities, you significantly recover your ‘higher’ brain powers.
Who can benefit from a “Brain Gym”?
Everybody’s brain is plastic, including yours, so no matter what your age or current level of brain function, your brain can improve to some degree or another. Dr. Merzenich and his colleagues have specialized in training children, primarily those with learning disabilities or impairments, using similar approaches. More than 4 million struggling kids have been trained so far. But seniors and adults of all ages are also using these programs at BrainHQ.com in increasing numbers. Individuals in all age groups have been found to reap significant rewards.
Children operating in the 10th to 20th percentile of academic performance are commonly able to improve their scores to the middle or average level with 20-30 hours of intensive computer-based training.
That’s a big difference for the child,” he says. “It carries most children who are near the bottom of the class, on the average, to be somewhere in the middle or above average in the class. And that gives struggling children a chance to really succeed and in many cases excel in school.
Careful controlled studies in seniors have also been reported in scientific journals. After 40 hours of computer-based training, the average improvement in cognitive performance across the board was 14 years. On average, if you were 70 years old when you underwent the training after 40 hours of brain training, your cognitive abilities operated like that of a 56-year old. Equally strong or even greater effects were seen in 40 to 50 year olds using the program. Individuals who worked on the BrainHQ exercises at home did just as well as those who completed training in a clinic or research centre.
How to implement a brain training program
So, how does such a training program work, and what’s the optimal way to implement it in order to maximize the benefits?
One of the great advantages that we have is that there’s a very large body of scientific information that informs us about the optimum brain training approach,” Dr. Merzenich says. “It comes from understanding, on a scientific level, the basis of what controls brain change. We know how the machine operates to control its own remodelling. We know that you have to be engaged attentively, and in a sense that the more attentively focused you are on the training tasks, the greater the positive benefits of training.
We know that rewards have to occur, or information or feedback about how you’re doing have to occur, in a specific and timely way to drive the optimum changes in the brain. The way difficulties change in the task are also crucial for driving changes with highest proficiency.
One simple thing we do is to [continually] adjust the difficulty level of the task, so that every trainee is at a level in which they get most things correct but they’re still capable of error. Because only when you’re in this demanding situation, only when it matters to the brain, does the machinery turn on to change the brain. We actually regulate this, and as the person progresses session by session, day by day, they notch up their performance to higher and higher and higher and higher and higher levels.
Ideally, it would be wise to invest at least 20 minutes a day. But no more than five to seven minutes is to be spent on a specific task. When you spend longer amounts of time on a task, the benefits weaken. According to Dr. Merzenich, the primary benefits occur in the first five or six minutes of the task.
You can typically improve yourself to the highest practical or possible level in anywhere between five to a dozen brief sessions of seven or eight minutes each. Again, having a sense of purpose is crucial.
When it matters to you, you are going to drive changes in your brain,” he explains. “That’s something always to keep in mind. If what you’re doing seems senseless, meaningless, if it does not matter to you, then you’re gaining less from it.
Dr. Merzenich developed a website, Brain HQ.com, to help take advantage of the brain’s ability to repair.The Brain HQ website has many different exercises designed to improve brain function and it also allows you to track and monitor your progress over time. While there are many similar sites on the web, Brain HQ is one of the oldest and most widely used, and its programs are supported by dozens of published science studies and the most complete confirmation of behavioural benefits and brain rejuvenation.
Lifestyle changes to improve your brain function
Aside from engaging in a computer-based brain exercise program, Dr. Merzenich lists several things you can do on a daily basis, as part of your day-to-day lifestyle, to help maintain optimal brain fitness:
Get 15-30 minutes of physical exercise each day – When exercising, think about using your brain to control your actions. That means, skip the iPod and instead take in the details of your environment.
Reconstruct the environment you’re walking through in your mind. Basically, we are constructed to take in the details of our physical environments, and to interpret and reconstruct them. That’s a critical form of exercise for us basically to refine our navigational skills and abilities in this sense—to basically look at the landmarks, to look at the details, to record them in detail,” he says.
Secondly, look for and take note of surprises in your environment. “If you walk across the landscape and are paying attention, you cannot take a walk for 15, 20, or 30 minutes without being surprised or delighted many times,” he says. “And the brain loves surprises, because surprises mean that they must be engaged to interpret what they mean.
Lastly, pay attention to your physical body. “You should feel yourself again. When’s the last time you actually thought about the feelings of your body in motion?”
Spend about five minutes every day working on the refinement of a specific, small domain of your physical body – Dr. Merzenich explains:
That is to say, move in a very variable and controlled way—variable in speed, variable to reach a target, for example, with your big toe or your little finger or the small of your back or the motion of your jaw. Pick a specific refinement target to work on, every day. I do that in a systematic way, because I’m trying to maintain the fidelity of the neurological control movement. I know that I’m very much thinking about the feeling in my movements as I do that.
Find ways to engage yourself in new learning – Take on new hobbies or learn new skills that you will use regularly.
Stay socially engaged
Practice mindfulness – Attentively focus on the world around you again, as if you’re seeing it for the first time.
Look at the wonder in the flower. Look with curiosity again at the movements of the lizard. Engage in the details of the world and in life. Associate what you hear with what you feel on your skin,” he suggests. “It’s incredibly important that you engage the brain and all of its details of how it’s drinking in information, because this again relates to the fidelity with which it will represent it for all of its operations.
Nutrition and brain health
Another factor that cannot be overlooked is your diet. Foods have an immense impact on your brain, and eating whole foods as described in my nutrition plan will best support your mental and physical health. Just like exercise, avoiding sugar (particularly fructose) and grains will help normalize your insulin levels.
This is an important aspect, as sugar causes chronic inflammation that disrupts your body’s normal immune function and can wreak havoc on your brain. But sugar also suppresses BDNF, which is important for proper memory function, and appears to play a significant role in depression as well. At least we know that BDNF levels tend to be critically low in people with depression, and some animal models have suggested low BDNF levels may actually be causative.
The medical literature is also showing that coconut oil can be of particular benefit for brain health, and anecdotal evidence suggests it could be very beneficial in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. Ketone bodies have been found to feed your brain and prevent brain atrophy. It may even restore and renew neuron and nerve function in your brain after damage has set in. Ketones are what your body produces when it converts fat (as opposed to glucose) into energy, and a primary source of ketone bodies are the medium chain triglycerides (MCT) found in coconut oil. Other dietary recommendations to preserve and improve your brain health include the following:
Optimize your vitamin D levels – Safe sun exposure, a safe tanning bed and/or vitamin D3 supplements.
Take a high-quality animal-based omega-3 fat – I recommend consuming high quality krill oil to meet the optimal amount of omega-3 fats needed to achieve good health and fight cognitive decline.
Avoid processed foods and sugars, especially fructose – Excessive sugar and grain consumption are the driving factors behind insulin resistance, and the strategies that protect your brain are very similar to those for avoiding diabetes. There is simply no question that insulin resistance is one of the most pervasive influences on brain damage, as it contributes massively to inflammation, which will prematurely degenerate your brain.
Ideally, you’ll want to restrict your total fructose consumption to below 25 grams a day. This includes refraining from eating too many fruits, if you normally eat a lot of them. If you consume more than 25 grams a day of fructose you can damage your cells by creating insulin and leptin resistance and raising your uric acid levels.
Avoid grains – Even whole, organic grains will convert to sugar in your body and spike your insulin levels.
Avoid artificial sweeteners – Aspartame, for example, is an excitotoxin that can literally destroy your brain cells. There are many studies showing the dangers of aspartame. For example, one study published in 2000 found that aspartame shortens the memory response, impairs memory retention and damages hypothalamic neurons in mice.
Avoid soy – Unfermented soy products are another common food that should be avoided if you want to maintain healthy brain function.
One well-designed epidemiological study linked tofu consumption with exaggerated brain aging. Men who ate tofu at least twice weekly had more cognitive impairment, compared with those who rarely or never ate the soybean curd, and their cognitive test results were about equivalent to what they would have been if they were five years older than their current age. What’s more, higher midlife tofu consumption was also associated with low brain weight. Shrinkage does occur naturally with age, but for the men who had consumed more tofu showed an exaggeration of the usual patterns you typically see in aging.
Dr. Kaayla Daniel has written an excellent book, The Whole Soy Story, which covers the health dangers of soy in great depth and I highly recommend it to anyone still under the illusion that soy is a health food.
photo courtesy mikebaird (CC-BY)