How to slow the aging of your brain
Aerobic exercise and neurogenesis - the creation of new neurons.
We all know exercise is good for you, it can help alleviate depression, and so on. But there's more. Scientists now know that our brains are pliable, have "plasticity" and that even when we have passed the age of Medicare, our brains continue to create new neurons.
How can we help Nature in this process of creating new neurons? Crossword puzzles? Chess?
It turns out that physical activity, more specifically aerobic exercise is one of the best ways to increase the rate of production of new neurons! Scientists like to refer to this as "exercise-induced neurogenesis". Aerobic exercise increases blood flow to the brain, speeds up the brain’s production of serotonin, which can, in turn, allow for the creation of new neurons! One of several studies that demonstrated "exercise-induced neurogenesis" was performed by Dr. Fred H. Gage and can be found on Pubmedcentral (1).
In the late nineties, Salk Institute neuroscientist Dr. Fred H. Gage and his colleagues examined brain samples from mice subjected to maze tests. Scientists had long held the view that animal and human brains were static: after a brief period of growth early in life, the brain could no longer develop or regenerate itself. The available pool of neurons was believed to be fixed almost from birth. Over the years, as the neurons died through aging, mental function declined gradually. The damage done to the brain through aging couldn’t be avoided or repaired.
Gage’s mice disproved this notion. Before being euthanized, Dr. Gage's mice had been injected with a chemical compound which incorporates itself only into cells which actively divide. During autopsy, any actively dividing cells could be identified with the use of a dye. Gage and his team assumed that they would not find such cells in the brain tissue of the mice, but to their surprise, they did. Up until the time of death, the mice were creating new neurons. Their brains were re-generating themselves.
Dr. Gage set out to find out whether neurogenesis also happens in the human brain. He and his colleagues had obtained brain tissue from deceased cancer patients who had donated their bodies to research. While still alive, these people had been injected with the same chemical compound used on Gage’s mice. When Dr. Gage dyed the brain samples, he again saw evidence of growth of new neurons. Like the mice, the human brains showed evidence of neurogenesis.
Gage’s discovery caused a sensation in the field of neuroscience. Scientists have since then been discovering more evidence that the human brain is not only capable of re-generating itself but that exercise speeds up this process.
Interestingly enough, it was also discovered that exercise is even more beneficial, in terms of neurogenesis, when performed in GROUPS. Scientists found (2) that exercising with others promots more neurogenesis than exercising alone.
One note about the INTENSITY of the exercise: it's important to point out that the brain seems to benefit more from MODERATE exercise, whereas exercise which is too intense can actually decrease neurogenesis! So once again, the ancient wisdom of Ayurveda seems to prove correct: MODERATE exercise does a better job at keeping the body healthy than exercise which is too intense and exhausts the body.
In view of these findings, and considering the state of our education system where our children are often forced to regurgitate stale data for hours on end sitting at their classroom desks, without recess in some cases, some of the neuroscientists studying the effects of aerobic exercise on neurogenesis are calling for the reform of our current school system and the establishment of a new education system where the children's day would consist of 6 hours of physical activity punctuated by sporatic periods of learning! Now THAT is a concept!
Transcendental Meditation and brain health
In addition to aerobic exercise, what is helpful in slowing the process of brain aging? Mice subjected to stress which they have no control over suffer drastic deterioration in their ability to produce new neurons. Transcendental Meditation is - as famous movie director Dr. David Lynch puts it - a "stress buster". Transcendental Meditation is an important tool when it comes to protecting your brain's health.
Some stress, so long as it is moderate and manageable by the person experiencing it, can have a beneficial effect on the brain. However extended periods of stress where one has NO CONTROL over the stressor can be extremely damaging to the brain. Chronic stress - which can often lead to substance abuse - can functionally alter and damage certain areas of the brain. When using substances such as drugs and alcohol on a regular basis, functional lesions can form in the brain. Several studies have shown that Transcendental Meditation is effective in treating substance abuse and addiction. (4,5)
Dr Fred Travis, a neuroscientist and Director of the Center for Brain, Consciousness, and Cognition at Maharishi University of Management (M.U.M.), Fairfield, Iowa, explains that when we are under stress, the brain undergoes a process of downshifting, causing connections to the prefrontal cortex to be reduced, while connections to the brain's motor and sensory areas are enhanced. This, Dr. Travis explains, causes the brain to lose some of its organizing and decision-making power.
For millions of years, when confronted with a tiger in the wild, it made sense for man's brain to react this way to stress, when survival depended on speedy reflexes and fleeing as quickly as possible. However this kind of response to stress becomes a problem when it becomes chronic. The tiger in the wild would not threaten man for extended periods of time; the stressful situation was over one way or another fairly quickly.
The stresses of modern life, being very different in nature, can cause our brains to operate in this "fight or flight" mode for extended periods of time, which can have detrimental effects on the health of the brain, and therefore it's imperative for us to find tools which can prevent this damage from being done. One such tool, I would argue the best tool, is Transcendental Meditation.
During the practice of Transcendental Meditation, the brain ceases all activities of information processing and concentration, while at the same time achieving increased coherence and inter-connectivity between its functions.
EEG monitoring of the brain during TM shows that after only a few seconds of Transcendental Meditation practice, the brain initiates global functioning - spontaneous coherence among localized areas.
This article is only meant as an introduction to the topic of the aging brain and brain health. In summary, I would recommend the following recipe to protect your brain from the detrimental effects of aging:
Fun "brain fitness game" helps you improve brain functioning
I have a fun "brain fitness game" for you. This game is designed to improve brain functioning and it's loads of fun!
Go to http://www.positscience.com/products/demo_insight/JD/index.php
These brain fitness games are finding their way into assisted living centers to help folks in their senior years get their brains "back into shape". Our bodies need exercise and so do our brains!
2. Nature Neuroscience 9, 526 - 533 (2006)
4. Brooks J. The application of Maharishi Ayur-Veda to mental health and substance abuse treatment. Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly, 1994, 11: 3-4, 395-411.
5. Gelderloos P, Walton KG, Orme-Johnson
DW, Alexander CN. Effectiveness of the Transcendental Meditation program
in preventing and treating substance misuse: a review. International Journal
of the Addictions, 1991, 26(3): 293- 325.
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