The New Science of Brain Exercise
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The first time you forget the name of a person you should know, a movie title, or an important meeting, you're likely to exclaim—only half-jokingly—"I'm losing it! My brain is turning to Jell-O." Reinforced by messages and images in the mass media, you equate mild forgetfulness with the first stages of accelerating mental decline.
..He was just in a Broadway show with, um, what's-her-name. Oh, God, you know who I mean."
And maybe they do remember it's Tony Roberts. But if they don't, you become frustrated and preoccupied trying to recall this buried name. Usually beginning in your forties or fifties— sometimes even in your thirties—you start to notice these small lapses: not remembering where you put the car keys or what was on the grocery list you left at home.. .orbeing unable to understand the instructions for a new VCR or computer. . .or forgetting where the car is parked because you left the mall through a different door.
Even though these small lapses don't actually interfere much with daily life, the anxiety they provoke can. You worry that you'll become just like your Aunt Harriet, who can remember details of events from the Depression but not what she did yesterday. Firsthand experiences with people who have difficulty with perception and memory as they age can make you anxious when you suddenly forget something ordinary. No wonder you jump to the conclusion that aging is an inevitable slide into forgetfulness, confusion, or even the first stages of Alzheimer's disease.
The good news, however, is that mild forgetfulness is not a disease like Alzheimer's and action can be taken to combat it. Recent brain research points to new approaches that can be incorporated into everyday activities to develop and maintain brain connections. By adopting these strategies, you may actually enhance your brain's ability to deal with declines in mental agility.
There are numerous myths about the aging brain that neuroscientists are disproving daily. With the help of exciting new technologies, the traditional view of the way the brain ages is being rapidly revised. Evidence clearly shows that the brain doesn't have to go into a steep decline as we get older. In fact, in 1998, a team of American and Swedish scientists demonstrated for the first time that new brain cells are generated in adult humans}
Also contrary to popular belief, the mental decline most people experience is not due to the steady death of nerve cells.2 Instead, it usually results from the thinning out of the number and complexity ofdendrites, the branches on nerve cells that directly receive and process information from other nerve cells that forms the basis of memory. Den- ^N^L^ drites receive information across connections called ^ ^ synapses. If connections aren't regularly f switched on, the dendrites can atro- ^ ^ ^Nerve cells phy. This reduces the brains ability ^ need to lJeeP
to put new information into memory ^S as well as to retrieve old information. <|v healthy.
Growing dendrites was long thought to be possible only in the brains of children. But more recent work has shown that old neurons can grow dendrites to compensate for losses*
Other experiments show that neural circuits in adult brains have the capacity to undergo dramatic changes—an ability scientists thought was lost after childhood. The aging brain, however, continues to have a remarkable ability to grow, adapt, and change patterns ofconnections.4
Discoveries like these are the basis of a new theory of brain exercise. Just as cross training helps you maintain overall physical fitness, Neurobics can help you take charge of your overall mental fitness.
Neurobics aims to help you maintain a continuing level of mental fitness, strength, and flexibility as you age.
The exercise program calls for presenting the brain with nonroutine or unexpected experiences using various combinations of your physical senses—vision, smell, touch, taste, and hearing—as well as your emotional "sense." It stimulates patterns of neural activity that create more connections between different brain areas and causes nerve cells to produce natural brain nutrients, called neurotrophins, that can dramatically increase the size and complexity of nerve cell dendrites.5 Neurotrophins also make surrounding cells stronger and more resistant to the effects of aging.
Neurobics is very different from other types of brain exercise, which usually involve logic puzzles, memory exercises, and solitary practice sessions that resemble tests. Instead,
Neurobic exercises use the five senses in novel ways to enhance the brain's natural drive to form associations between different types of information. Associations (putting a name together with a face, or a smell with a food, for example) are the building blocks of memory and the basis of how we learn. Deliberately creating new associative patterns is a central part of the Neurobic program.
Putting together the neuroscience findings (pages 6-7) with what scientists already know about our senses led directly to our concept of using the associative power of the five senses to harness the brain's ability to create its own natural nutrients. In short, with Neurobics you can grow your own brain food—without drugs or diet.
The word Neurobics is a deliberate allusion to physical exercise. Just as the ideal forms of physical exercise emphasize using many different muscle groups to enhance coordination and flexi-
ity, the ideal brain exercises involve
activating many different brain areas in novel ways to increase the range of mental motion. For example, an exercise like swimming makes the body more fit overall and capable of taking on any exercise. Similarly,
Neurobics rests on much more than a single breakthrough finding. It is a synthesis of important new information about the organization of the brain, how it acquires and maintains memories, and how certain brain activities produce natural brain nutrients. These findings include:
1. The cerebral cortex, the seat of higher learning in the brain, consists of an unexpectedly large number of different areas, each specialized to receive, interpret, and store information from the senses. What you experience through the senses doesn't all end up in one place in the brain.
2. Connecting the areas of the cerebral cortex are hundreds of different neural pathways, which can store memories in almost limitless combinations. Because the system is so complex and the number of possible combinations of braiii pathways so vast, we employ only a small fraction of the possible combinations.
3. The brain is richly endowed with specific molecules—the neurotrophins—which are produced and secreted by nerve cells to act as a kind ofbrain nutrient that actually promotes the health of these nerve cells as well as the health oftheir neighbors and the synapses between them.6
4. The amount ofneurotrophins produced by nerve cells—
and how well nerve cells respond to neurotrophins made by other nerve cells—is regulated by how active those nerve cells are. In other words, the more active brain cells are, the. more growth-stimulating molecules they produce and the better they respond.7
5. Specific kinds of sensory stimulation, especially nonrou-
tine experiences that produce novel activity patterns in nerve cell circuits, can produce greater quantities of these growth-stimulating molecules.8
Neurobics makes the brain more agile and flexible overall so it can take on any mental challenge, whether it be memory, task performance, or creativity. That's because Neurobics uses an approach based on how the brain works, not simply on how to work the brain.
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