The concepts of brain fitness and brain training have really only surfaced in the public awareness over about the last 5 years – much of this attributable to Nintendo’s Brain Training computer game. What Nintendo has clearly shown is that there is an appetite for improving our minds and products that enable us to do this. The concept of improving our brains is real and we can make a difference, so what’s the science behind it?
Let’s begin with some key terms that you may want to know… If you are familiar with the basics of the brain, please skip ahead to ***.
Neurons are the cells in your brain that communicate with each other and control what you do, think and feel.
Neurotransmitters are the chemicals that neurons release in order to communicate with other brain cells. Without neurotransmitters there is no communication.
Axons are the part of a brain cell that carry information away from it and onto other cells.
Dendrites are the receiving end of brain cells. They accept the neurotransmitter and then turn it into an electrical signal.
The synapse is the gap between the axons of a neuron and the dendrites of a connected neuron. It is within the space or gap that neurotransmitters pass.
The myelin sheath is the coating on the outside of axons.
Glial cells are like support cells that feed the neurons – they bring nutrition to the neurons and take waste away. Interestingly when Einstein’s brain was examined after his passing, he was found to have a “normal” number of neurons but a larger amount of glial cells than was expected.
The blood-brain barrier is a tight mesh of cells outside of the brain that protects most nasties from getting in. It allows water, glucose and oxygen to get in and allows CO2 to get out but it is very selective is what else it permits to access the brain.
Brain Fitness Basics
Professor Michael Merzenich, Neuroscientist & Neuroplastician believes that “radical improvements in cognitive functioning – how we learn, think, perceive and remember – are possible even in the elderly.” Baroness Susan Greenfield, a Neuroscientist at Oxford University, concludes that there is now good scientific evidence to show that exercising the brain can slow, delay and protect against age-related decline. What allows these improvements and potentially protects your brain from decline is neuroplasticity - your brain’s ability to change at all ages. Providing yourself with a stimulating environment can help reduce decline because the neurons are stimulated and repetition strengthens the connections between cells. Dr Marion Diamond, and the scientist chosen to study the brain of Einstein, believes that a healthy older brain can function virtually as well as a healthy young brain, when supported by ongoing mental activity and a healthy lifestyle.
Research has shown that contrary to popular belief, the brain is constantly undergoing neurogenesis – the growth and development of new neurons or brain cells. As you age a number of your brain cells die off, however it is possible to grow new brain cells at a greater rate than the rate of decline. Learning, targeted mental and physical exercise promote neurogenesis – just as lifting weights promotes muscle growth. If we are mentally and physically engaged, the rate at which we grow cells exceeds the rate of decline. Labelled neurogenesis, this highly significant finding overturns a long-standing belief that the brain cells you are born with are the ones you have for life and that mental decline was inevitable. We now know that by exerting and ‘working’ your brains you can facilitate and excite this new growth. Interestingly, physical exercise is being identified as one of the most important things that you can do for your brain in promoting the creation of new brain cells – Dr Elkhonon Goldberg, Clinical Professor of Neurology at New York University School of Medicine; Dr John Ratey, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Dr John Medina, Affiliate Professor at The University of Washington and Seattle Pacific University.
3. Neuroprotection & Brain Reserve
Like millions of intertwining spider webs, dendrites and axons create a density in your brain, a concept known as ‘neural reserve.’
It is proprosed that a brain that has a larger number of neural connections, a larger neural reserve, is less likely to develop degenerative brain diseases, such as Alzheimers. In the concept of neural reserve, the size of the network of connections between brain cells matters–and more is definitely better. Researchers at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia found people “who don’t engage in complex mental activity during their lifetime have twice the shrinkage [fewer connections] in a key part of the brain once they hit old age…” In contrast, our cognitive connections can proliferate as a result of our individual experiences, what we have learned, and how much we challenge and stimulate ourselves.
According to Dr Yaakov Stern, Division Leader of the Cognitive Neuroscience Division of the Sergievsky Centre and Professor of Clinical Neuropsychology, College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University, New York, stimulation consists of engaging in activities. ‘In our research almost all activities are seen to contribute to reserve…no matter ones’ age, education and occupation, our level of participation in leisure activities has a significant and cumulative effect…different activities have independent, synergistic, contributions, which means the more things you do and the earlier you start, the better. But you are never stuck: better late than never.
The fundamental lesson to be taken from current research in the area of brain fitness is not only understanding the ‘use it or lose it principle’ but living it and putting it into practice is as many varied ways as possible – physically, mentally and socially.