Brain Fitness: Anti-Aging to Fight Alzheimer's Disease, Supercharge Your Memory, Sharpen Your Intelligence, De-Stress Your Mind, Control Mood Swings
By Robert Goldman, M.D.
Over the past decade, I have been faced with a daunting task: taking an idea about a revolutionary medical device for protecting the brain during trauma from conception to the marketplace. The idea grew out of discoveries about how cold temperatures can prevent brain damage when trauma like stroke or cardiac arrest has disrupted a person's oxygen supply. My partner, Dr. Ronald Klatz, and I have devoted years to inventing the Brain Cooling Device, which consists of a neck-stabilizing plate and a helmet that is fitted over an accident victims head and filled with a coolant, and the Brain Resuscitation Device, which delivers vital nutrients and oxygen through the carotid arteries to the brain. We named the umbrella company that would develop and promote these innovations Life Resuscitation Technologies, Inc. (LRT).
Our venture required a wide assortment of skills and knowledge. For starters, while we had built a prototype of the device, we needed to refine the technology so that it could be manufactured for prospective users, such as hospitals, ambulance companies, and the military. I had to learn about the patenting process, steps for government approval, components and manufacturing, corporate structures and financing options, and licensing, marketing, and joint ventures. I also had to do a crash course on securities law and corporate structure, and master an array of sophisticated business development skills.
The prospect of all this learning and intellectual fine-tuning was more appealing than daunting. I knew from my brain studies what was possible: Regardless of my grades in school or my I.Q. score, my mind was quite capable of becoming stronger, faster, and capturing more knowledge. Not only could I add to the contents of my mind, but I also could alter the structure of my brain so that it worked more efficiently and processed more information.
Lessons from Seattle and Baltimore
A compelling source of information about the brain's intellectual capacities comes from two studies that have been under way for the past forty years. The Seattle Longitudinal Study and the Baltimore Longitudinal Study on Aging have been tracking thousands of people throughout their lives, chronicling the changes brought about by aging in their physical, emotional, and mental health. Longitudinal studies are relatively rare because they require a continuous stream of resources to track people year after year. Most scientific and medical studies are cross-sectional or case studies, meaning that they look at different people at the same time. A cross-sectional study on aging might compare a thirty-year-old woman with a seventy-year-old woman to arrive at its conclusions, while a longitudinal study would follow one woman from age thirty to age seventy. As you can imagine, results from longitudinal studies open fascinating windows onto how our bodies and minds change with time.
The Seattle and Baltimore studies have slightly different participants and methods. For example, the Baltimore study did not include women until 1978, and the Seattle study has worked with subgroups of volunteers to train people in order to change their mental aging patterns. Still, the studies share conclusions about how our brains and minds age, and what we can do about it.
Basic to everyone's findings is a belief in the brains ability to mold or alter its structure-what scientists call its plasticity. An infant's brain has plasticlike qualities, and as the child grows its brain creates new nerve connections and strengthened communication pathways. But the idea that an adult's brain can also do this is relatively new.
For many years, the brain was considered to be hardwired, much like a computer, with its connections and chips molded permanently in place and incapable of alteration. It turns out, however, that the brain is quite capable of expansion well into adulthood. Certain physical and mental activities can noticeably alter the brain. Neurons, the brain's nerve cells, can grow larger, and the connectors between neurons, called synapses, can become stronger and multiply.
Scientists have seen this happen. Researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, put rats in what's called an enriched environment, meaning that they were surrounded by lots of stimulation. The rodents had ample space to run around, and toys and games to play with. Brain studies of rats that had spent time in this environment revealed that the animals had developed 15 percent more brain cells in the regions that control memory and learning. And the mice acted smarter, too, running mazes faster and more efficiently.
Results showing that the brain can lay down new wiring also come from a study done by Dr. Michael Merzenich at the University of California at San Francisco. Dr. Merzenich has been working with musicians who suffer from a condition called focal dystonia, which is caused by the brain merging nerve connections so that one neural path controls the muscles of two fingers. A guitar player, for instance, may find that continuous practice makes it impossible for him to move two fingers independently. To help musicians regain control and separate the merged neurons, Dr. Merzenich has been teaching them various muscle exercises.
In a more startling experiment, Dr. Merzenich taught a monkey to touch a spinning disk with only its three middle fingers. The monkey repeated this action many times, and when Merzenich later examined its brain, he discovered that the area of the cortex responsible for transmitting responses from those fingers had grown.
The scientists conducting the Seattle and Baltimore longitudinal studies have witnessed what happens to people when their brains become stronger-they remember more, can think more quickly and efficiently, and develop a better grasp of elusive concepts. The studies have shown that deliberate, methodical mental training or exercises can make a demonstrable difference in people's lives. They have proved that the adage "use it or lose it" refers as much to the brain as to any other organ.