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BUILDING A BETTER BRAIN

   
Build a Better Brain

Life magazine - July 1994, page 62
By Daniel Golden and Alexander Tsiaras

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from an article in Life magazine pointing to the research being done on ways to stimulate and increase brain power into old age. This is the article that was the original impetus for creating this web site.

 

Evidence is accumulating that the brain works a lot like a muscle -- the harder you use it, the more it grows. Although scientists had long believed the brain’s circuitry was hard-wired by adolescence and inflexible in adulthood, its newly discovered ability to change and adapt is apparently with us well into old age. Best of all, this research has opened up an exciting world of possibilities for treating strokes and head injuries -- and warding off Alzheimer’s disease.

The party last year was as rowdy as it gets in a convent. Celebrating her 100th birthday, Sister Regina Mergens discarded her habit in favor of a daring red gown, downed two glasses of champagne and proclaimed her intention to live to 102. She didn’t quite make it. Now, at vespers on a March afternoon in Mankato, MN, dozens of nuns file past the open casket where Mergens, 101 lies, rosary beads in her hands.

Concealed from view is an incision in the back of Mergen’s head through which her brain has been removed. Mergens and nearly 700 elderly sisters in her order are the largest group of brain donors in the world. By examining these nuns, as well as thousands of stroke victims, amputees and people with brain injuries, researchers are living up to the promise of a presidential proclamation that the 1990's be the Decade of the Brain. Scientists are beginning to understand that the brain has a remarkable capacity to change and grow, even into old age, and that individuals have some control over how healthy and alert their brains remain as the years go by. The Sisters of Mankato, for example, lead an intellectually challenging life, and recent research suggests that stimulating the mind with mental exercise may cause brain cells, called neurons, to branch wildly. The branching causes millions of additional connections, or synapses, between brain cells. Think of it, says Arnold Scheibel, director of UCLA’s Brain Research Institute, as a computer with a bigger memory board: "You can do more things more quickly."

 

The capacity of the brain to change offers a new hope for preventing and treating brain diseases. It helps explain why some people can:

  • Delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease symptoms for years. Studies show that the more educated a person is, the less likely he or she is to show symptoms of the disease. The reason: Intellectual activity develops brain tissue that compensates for tissue damaged by the disease.
  • Make a better recovery from strokes. Research indicates that even when areas of the brain are permanently damaged by stroke, new message routes can be created to get around the roadblock or to resume the function of that area.

New knowledge about the brain may emerge from the obscure convent in Minnesota, a place where Ponce de Leon might have been tempted to test the waters. Mankato is the site of the northwest headquarters of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, where a long life is normal. In part because the nuns of this order don’t drink much, smoke or die in childbirth, they live to an average age of 85, and many live far beyond that. Of the 150 retired nuns residing in this real-life Cocoon, 25 are older than 90.

But longevity is only part of the nuns’ story. They also do not seem to suffer from dementia, Alzheimer’s and other debilitating brain diseases as early or as severely as the general population. David Snowdon of the Sander’s Brown Center on Aging at the University of Kentucky, the professor of preventative medicine who has been studying the nuns for several years, had found that those who earn college degrees, who teach, who constantly challenge their minds, live longer than less-educated nuns who clean rooms or work in the kitchen. He suspects the difference lies in how they use their heads.

Within the human brain each neuron contains at one end threadlike appendages called axons, which send signals to other nearby neurons. At the other end of the neuron are similar threadlike appendages called dendrites, which receive messages from nearby cells. Axons and dendrites tend to shrink with age, but experiments with rats have shown that intellectual exertion can spur neurons to branch like the roots of a growing tree, creating networks of new connections. Once a skill becomes automatic, the extra connections may fade, but the brain is so plastic that they can be tapped again if needed. Like the power grid of an electric company, the branching and connections provide surplus capacity in a brownout. Snowdon and some neuroscientists believe that people with such surplus who find their normal neural pathways blocked by the tangles that characterize Alzheimer’s disease can reroute messages. To be sure, every brain is limited by genetic endowment, and flexibility does decrease with age. But new thinking in brain science suggests that whether someone hits that wall at age 65 or at age 102 may be partly up the the individual.

Professor Snowdon says the nuns of Mankato demonstrate this. He expects to prove that the better-educated sisters have significantly more cortex and more synaptic branching of neurons than their less-educated counterparts, which would allow the former to cope better with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia and stroke. Brain exercising is a way of life at the nunnery, where the sisters live by the principle that an idle mind is the devil’s plaything. They write spiritual meditations in their journals and letters to their congressmen about the blockade in Haiti, and do puzzles of all sorts....One 99 year-old, Sister Mary Esther Boor, takes advantage of slow minutes while working as the complex’s receptionist to solve brainteasers -- some with words in Spanish.

What can the average person do to strengthen his or her mind? The important thing is to be actively involved in areas unfamiliar to you, says Steel, head of UCLA’s Brain Research Institute. "Anything that’s intellectually challenging can probably serve as a kind of stimulus for dendritic growth, which means it adds to the computational reserve in your brain."

So pick something that’s diverting and, more important, unfamiliar. A computer programmer might try sculpture, a ballerina might try marine navigation. Here are some other stimulating suggestions from brain researchers:

"Do puzzles, I can’t stand crosswords," says neuroscientist Antonio Damasio of the University of Iowa, "but they’re a good idea." Psychologist Sherry Willis of Pennsylvania State University says, "People who do jigsaw puzzles show greater spatial ability, which you use when you look at a map."

And remember, researchers agree that it’s never too late. Says Scheibel: "All of life should be a learning experience, not just for the trivial reasons but because by continuing the learning process, we are challenging our brain and therefore building brain circuitry. Literally. This is the way the brain operates."

This article also discusses the enigma of phantom limbs and how the brain continues to register impulses due to synaptic connectivity long after the limb itself is gone. If you are interested you can probably pick up a copy of this article at any library. The pictures are excellent and this is information that everyone should be aware of.

© J.L. Read, 1996. All Rights Reserved.
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This site is dedicated in loving memory
to its creator, Janet L. Read
1949 — 2000

 

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