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Grow your Mind

February 2011

An article in the January 10 & 17, 2011 issue of Newsweek got our minds working!
(Can You Build a Better Brain by Sharon Begley)

As some of us start reaching certain age milestones, our thoughts move towards keeping our brains active and living for as long as possible. The 2010 meeting of the Society for Neuroscience had some very interesting research presented.

Greater cognitive capacity comes from having more neurons or synapses, higher levels of neurogenesis (the creation of new neurons, especially in the memory–forming hippocampus), and increased production of compounds such as BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor) which stimulates the production of neurons and synapses. Both neurogenesis and synapse formation boost learning, memory, reasoning and creativity.

Skills we’re already good at don’t make us smarter if we don’t continually practice them. In contrast taking up a new cognitive activity – new language, ballroom dancing – is more likely to boost processing speed, strengthen synapses and expand or create functional networks.

The more you use a circuit, the stronger it gets. As a result, a skill you focus and train on improves and even commandeers more neuronal real estate, with corresponding improvements in performance. London cabdrivers who memorise the incredible maze of the London streets, have a larger posterior hippocampus than the average Londoner. Conversely if we offload our navigational ability onto a GPS, we’ll lose it!

Improving processing speed does not improve memory and improving memory does not improve reasoning. Similarly doing Suduko will increase your ability to ... do Suduko!

Here are three ways we can train our brain to increase, as we get “older”:

  1. Physical exercise. Simple aerobic exercise such as walking 45 minutes a day 3 times a week improves episodic memory and executive control by about 20%. It has been found that a year of exercise can give a 70 year old the connectivity of a 30 year old - improving memory, planning, dealing with ambiguity and multi-tasking

  2. The second form of overall mental training is meditation. This can increase the thickness of regions that control attention and process sensory signals from the outside world.

  3. Finally some videogames might improve general mental agility. Strategy heavy, action orientated games that require full attention and switching between tasks, improve executive control functions such as task switching, working memory, visual short-term memory and reasoning.

So, exercise, meditate and challenge people to strategic computer games and we will keep mentally alert and inquisitive for many more years to come!