Brain plasticity, also referred to as “neuroplasticity,” describes the changing of neurons by creating or enhancing new neural networks, usually improving brain function. This idea was first proposed in 1890 by William James in his classic text, The Principles of Psychology. Plasticity can include the adding of new cells, improving the strength of connections between neurons and glial cells, or by adding to and removing existing connections.
Most people in their 50s and 60s or older worry about the possibility of losing part of their mental function; this worry is reinforced when we forget a name or phone number. We often tend to look for a simple “fix” to prevent mental decline and can easily find an array of vitamins, herbs, and medication enhancements said to improve mental function. However, the body and the brain have a well-established mechanism for correction of failing neurological pathways.
We know that by using and “reworking” your existing brain pathways, clear thinking and better memory can be achieved. If you look at a system like the Cogmed Memory Training Program to improve cognition, mental focus, and problem solving, you will see ample evidence that such training is indeed effective with self-discipline and repetitive exposure. Controlled research has shown conclusively that improved brain function and modified connection between neurons via neurogenesis can occur. In other words, just as physical exercise can improve muscle function and strength, mental exercises can help improve your cognitive function.
What does this information mean to us on an everyday basis? Can we continue to enjoy the same or even better mental function as we age by modifying our lifestyle choices? It is clear that nutrition, physical exercise, caffeine intake, some herbs, some medications, and some mental exercises can keep us on the right path to growing older and perhaps even a little wiser. A decline in mental function, can occur, of course, as a result of diseases or deterioration of the brain cells caused by your genetic codes, nutrition, viruses, or bacterial infection, stroke, trauma, alcohol, or other toxic causes. It is this category of choices that probably offer us the most chance to change our destiny.
I have discussed nutrition in past articles of Tidewater Women, making the point that elimination of all hydrogenated fat, all trans fat, and a majority of ingested sugar would go a long way to preserve brain health. It has also been noted that eating a nutrient-rich, low-glycemic diet keeps both the body and brain in best working order.
Reducing alcohol to a maximum of one or two glasses a day of red wine nurtures the brain by furnishing polyphenols, which are good nutrients. Too much alcohol causes a reduction in muscle mass, which corresponds to the amount taken in. This translates to less energy and muscle function, which effectively reduces mental function. Even low doses of alcohol interfere with memory and impair judgment and critical motor skills. In some cases, it releases aggressive tendencies, inducing inappropriate behavior and even physical violence.
Evaluation of a brain that has undergone more stimulation has shown in multiple studies that true plasticity can occur. A 2005 study of the brain images of medical students studying for final exams showed that gray matter increased a significant degree. This is accomplished by growth of small, interconnected fibers, which increase in number by stimulation of those pathways. After stroke, loss of vision, or traumatic loss of part of the brain, other areas can “take over” function and enhance the ability of a person to use the cortical resources which remained available but became more active by neural plasticity.
Interestingly, brain games have had a lot of appeal for people throughout the years. They can also improve mental function, especially in areas of recall, memory, and problem solving, as well as adding words to your vocabulary. A good example of this is the crossword puzzle, invented in 1890 in Italy, which continues to command the attention of millions of people who daily strive to improve their brains by working these puzzles. In addition, number puzzles are quite a cerebral stimulant as well. Sudoku, for example, has become a national pastime in Japan!
I could go on for pages about the variety of ways that the brain develops and exercises neural plasticity, but here are a few general principles. First, by keeping the body fit, the brain will be able to function better. Diet, supplements, avoidance of excessive alcohol consumption or sedative drugs is of high importance. If you feel the need for intense brain and memory growth, try systems that involve coaching and accountability, such as the Cogmed Memory Training Program or Fast For Words. Keep your brain active by reading new types of material and listening to different music and return to the language training of your school or college days. By doing these things, you can keep your mind as fit as your body and know that you are exercising extensive control over the aging process.
Dr. Carraway is the director of the Plastic & Cosmetic Surgery Center of EVMS. For information, please call 757-557-0300.