Dr. Vincent Fortanasce

Dr. Vincent Fortanasce

As Alzheimer’s disease destroys a bridge, a reserve of developed bridges can take the destroyed bridge’s place so you are still able to have access to stored knowledge.

You have probably heard of aerobics ( walking, running, and swimming ect.) to build endurance and anaerobic weight training to build muscle. Now there is neurobics- brain exercises’ that flex your brains muscles!

The principles of Neurobics rely on doing everyday activities in different ways to build new neural connections or bridges. To build a neural bridge, one needs to receive and express pathways by engaging in novel events or learning a new task.

The secret to neurobics is novelty, reception, and expression. In other words, find a new task or activity, learn how to do the task, and then put into practice the activity.

By doing novel activities, one can both develop more neural connections and multiply storage centers. Activity of your brain increases with unfamiliar task. Routine task cause little excitement as the brains road and communications are well-equipped to take on the familiar activity. A new challenge means “recruiting” new cells and roads to handle the work load and increase brain size.

For example, what occurs in the brain with the introduction of a novel way of writing is that a different part of the brain is stimulated, superior and lateral to the handwriting area. Pathways are abundant and need not be increased in size or else old connections and cells have to handle the burden. Increased routine activity does not mean an increased brain size or capacity. It only maintains what you already have. What we need as we age is to invest in new areas to bare new dividends.

You want to build brain capacity where you used to have little to none. That is the essence of neurobics— creating new neural paths in your brain.

The Brains Interest account

There is still much that isn’t known about the telltale plaques and tangles that slowly strangle the brains of Alzheimer’s victims. But what scientists do know now that they didn’t just a decade ago is that people generate new brain cells, and new connections between them, throughout life. And the more mental reserves people build up, experts know, the better they can stave off age-related cognitive decline.

“It’s like having more cell towers in your brain to send messages along. The more cell towers you have, the fewer missed calls,” says P. Murali Doraiswamy, chief of biological psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center.

Mental stimulation is one key. The more you challenge your brain, the more new nerve pathways you form. A mini-industry of brain teasers, puzzles and computer games has sprung up to help worried baby boomers do just that. But you can give your brain a good workout with just a few modifications in your daily life, and it has no cost.

Some of the niftiest are “neurobics” — a term popularized by the late neurobiologist Lawrence Katz for engaging different parts of the brain to do familiar tasks. Try brushing your teeth or dialing the phone with your non-dominant hand. Theoretically, that can strengthen the pathways in the opposite side of your brain.

Since much of the brain is devoted to processing sensory input, Dr. Katz also suggested involving more of your senses in everyday activities — such as showering or eating dinner with your eyes closed. “The brain loves novelty,” says Dr. Doraiswamy. “It doesn’t have to be complicated.”

Activities that challenge your brain on many levels, such as learning how to play a musical instrument or speak a new language, provide great stimulation. So do games like chess, bridge and Stratego that require you to strategize and interact socially at the same time. New-age computer games often are solitary and lack an essential element for brain-building social interaction. Bring out the board games.

Stress has the opposite effect. The stress hormone cortisol depresses the growth of nerve cells and the connections between them. Yoga, meditation, exercise and social interaction can all help alleviate it.

Getting sufficient sleep is also crucial. “REM sleep is when we consolidate memory and cement it in the brain,” says Marianne J. Legato, a professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University and author of “Why Men Never Remember and Women Never Forget.” Untreated sleep apnea can be very detrimental to memory; age-related declines in testosterone and estrogen also interfere with sleep. A loss in libido and weight gain are two early signs.

It is almost a given that what is good for your heart is good for your head, and vice versa. Heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity — particularly abdominal fat — all raise the risk for age-related cognitive decline, as does smoking and heavy drinking. A heart-healthy diet with lots of vegetables, fruit, fish, whole grains and olive oil, and a minimum of saturated fat, is brain-healthy as well.

Exercise is emerging as an extremely valuable way to enhance brain health. Studies show that even 30 minutes of brisk walking daily can improve blood flow to the brain, boosting neural growth factors and brain connectivity, perhaps as much as mental cross-training does.

Use your “Six Senses” and improve Memory though:

Sight, Hearing, Touch, Smell, Taste, Emotion

Our society is both very visual and very auditory, so these connections are well-developed. However, our senses – sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste, and emotion- tend to be neglected. When you do something in a novel way, certain areas of your brain are challenged. You can increase neural pathways with each of your six senses.

These areas in the parietal lobe and temporal area are often unused and rarely challenged. When activated, “adaptive qualities” are built into our brain that pumps out tropic factors that signal and “bring on new recruits, the new brain cells, and connections.” Take a different approach to everyday activities to actively stretch your brain and activate new areas. The following are example activities that stimulate each sense:

  1. Sight – Memorize telephone numbers and birthdates, or draw what you see.
  2. Hearing – Listen to books on tape or sing or learn a new language.
  3. Touch – Feel brail, identify objects in hand, or eat, write, or brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand
  4. Smell – Identify different flowers or food through smell
  5. Taste – Taste and identify the ingredients in a dish.
  6. Emotion – Close your eyes and elicit emotions by remembering past events.

Train these connections and mature them for the function needed! Open up and widen new bridges. This increase in ability is the key to preventing Alzheimer’s disease.

We give these sensory functions a mnemonic called the HE-TEST

H – Hearing

E – Emotions

T – Taste

E – Eyes

S – Smell

T – Touch

There are also cognitive functions of the brain to build call E-MAIL

E – Executive function

M – Memory

A – Attention

I – intelligence

L – Language

Adult Neurogenesis

For more than a century, medical science firmly believed that our brain could not repair itself and that we were born with all the brain cells we would ever have. That belief has changed. Over the last 20 years, research has shown that neurogenesis, the creation of new brain cells, actually occurs in the adult human. Currently, work is shifting to find out where neurogenesis happens, how it happens, why it happens, and, more importantly, how it might help the brain heal itself.

We’ve been taught for generations that the adult brain doesn’t create new brain cells. The cells you have at birth are about all you’ll ever have, and a neuron lost is lost forever. Now, medical science has learned a different lesson.

Research over the last decade has produced growing evidence that the adult human brain creates new neurons, a process known as neurogenesis. Recent findings show that many of these new neurons survive and integrate themselves into the working brain, suggesting the potential for a self-healing brain. If researchers can harness and enhance neurogenesis, it could lead to improved treatments for many disorders, diseases, or damage — from Alzheimer’s and epilepsy to stroke and traumatic brain injury — and it can help keep our minds and memories sharp.

Already research has:

  • Identified areas of the brain where neurogenesis is evident.
  • Discovered the processes that may promote or inhibit neurogenesis.
  • Offered a glimpse of how new neurons may assimilate into the working brain.

What began with the song of a small bird has changed an entire paradigm in neuroscience. About 20 years ago, research on the ability of adult songbirds to learn new songs showed that their brains created new cells and that these neurons helped them form memories of the new songs. This opened up debate on whether the same process occurred in humans. Subsequent research confirmed human neurogenesis, and now questions revolve around the extent that neurogenesis occurs, where it occurs, and the function new neurons perform in the working brain.

In order to understand neurogenesis better, it helps to understand that not all new neurons live very long after birth. In fact, more die than survive, which may be one reason it took so long for researchers to recognize neurogenesis in the adult brain.

To live and become part of the working brain, a new neuron needs not only support from neighboring glial cells and nutrients from blood, but also, and more important, connections with other neurons. Without these connections, neurons wither and die.

Research to date suggests that the most active area of neurogenesis is the hippocampus, a region deep within the brain involved in learning and memory. Research has shown that thousands of new cells are produced in the hippocampus each day, although many die within weeks of their birth.

Recent animal studies have shown a correlation between learning and new neurons surviving in the hippocampus. After teaching rodents a variety of tasks that engaged a range of brain areas, scientists found that, generally, the more the animal learned, the more neurons survived in the hippocampus. Cells that were born before the learning experience was more likely to survive to become neurons, but only if the animals actually learned. The increase in survival occurred with tasks that depended on the hippocampus as well as those that required significant effort to learn.

Everybody knows that exercise is good for your heart, but in recent years, compelling evidence has shown that exercise is also good for your brain. Experiments have found that mice that used a running wheel had about twice as many new hippocampal neurons as mice that didn’t exercise. Learning may still be necessary to preserve them, however.

Other research has found that beta-endorphin, a mood-elevating chemical produced by the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, may play a role in the effects of exercise on the brain. Mice producing beta-endorphin and exercising showed an increase in the hippocampus in both the number of newborn cells and the rate at which those cells survived. However, mice that could not produce beta-endorphin but were still allowed to exercise showed no change in neurogenesis.

Recent experiments using antidepressant therapy found that it stimulates neurogenesis in adult animals. On the other hand, stress seems to work against the production of new cells.

A key question for researchers now is what do these new neurons do once they survive and become part of the working brain. Do they merely replace old neurons, or do they form entirely new circuits? Are they responsible for new memories? Some very recent studies suggest that the strength of a memory can relate to how many new neurons remain in the brain after learning. These new insights are opening up many exciting avenues of research for scientists as they increase their understanding of how our brains work.

Evolving Brains Inspired Movement
Step back a half-billion years ago, to when the first nerve cells developed. The original need for a nervous system was to coordinate movement, so an organism could go find food, instead of waiting for the food to come to it. Jellyfish and sea anemone, the first animals to create nerve cells, had a tremendous advantage over the sponges that waited brainlessly for dinner to arrive. After millions of generations of experimentation, nervous systems evolved some amazing ways of going out to eat. But behind all the myriad forms of life today, the primary directive remains. Movement. In fact, a diminished ability to move is a good measure of aging. Inflexibility heralds death, while a flexible body and fluid mind are the hallmarks of youth.

Elasticity and Plasticity
Elastic comes from the Greek word for “drive” or “propulsion.” It is the tendency of a material to return to its original shape after being stretched.Elasticity is the basic animal drive that powers your muscles, giving you strength and balance – flexibility, mobility, and grace. Plastic derives from the Greek word meaning “molded” or “formed.” It is the tendency of the brain to shape itself according to experience.Plasticity is the basic mental drive that networks your brain, giving you cognition and memory – fluidity, versatility, and adaptability.

The Growth of Your Amazing Neural Network
Before birth you created neurons, the brain cells that communicate with each other, at the rate of 15 million per hour! When you emerged into the world, your 100 billion neurons were primed to organize themselves in response to your new environment – no matter the culture, climate, language, or lifestyle.During infancy, billions of these extraordinary cells intertwined into the vast networks that integrated your nervous system. By the time you were four or five years old, your fundamental cerebral architecture was complete. Until your early teens, various windows of opportunity opened when you could most easily learn language and writing, math and music, as well as the coordinated movements used in sports and dance. But, at any age you can – and should – continue to build your brain and expand your mind.

Expanding Your Amazing Neural Network
Throughout life, your neural networks reorganize and reinforce themselves in response to new stimuli and learning experiences. This body-mind interaction is what stimulates brain cells to grow and connect with each other in complex ways. They do so by extending branches of intricate nerve fibers called dendrites (from the Latin word for “tree”). These are the antennas through which neurons receive communication from each other. A healthy, well-functioning neuron can be directly linked to tens of thousands of other neurons, creating a totality of more than a hundred trillion connections – each capable of performing 200 calculations per second! This is the structural basis of your brain’s memory capacity and thinking ability.As a product of its environment, your “three pound universe” is essentially an internal map that reflects your external world.

Learning at the Cellular Level
Many neuroscientists believe that learning and memory involve changes at neuron-to-neuron synapses. Such changes, called long-term potentiation (LTP), make it easier for connected neurons to communicate with each other, and therefore to form memories. LTP involves patterns of synaptic strengthening and weakening that can last for weeks. Because receptor aggregation may contribute to LTP – and dispersal may contribute to the reverse scenario, long-term depression – the discovery that receptors can scurry in and out of synapses strengthens the synaptic hypothesis of learning.

Learning Uses Long-Term Potentiation Study
A study by neuroscientists at Brown university provided further evidence that learning uses long-term potentiation LTP to produce changes in the synaptic connections between brain cells that are necessary to acquire and store new informationWhen the researchers taught rats a new motor skill, scientists found that the animals’ brains had also changed. The strength of synapses between neurons in the motor cortex of their brains had increased through a process consistent with the use of LTP. Previously, “the link between LTP, synaptic modification and learning was tentative,” said senior author John Donoghue, professor of neuroscience. “This latest study provides strong evidence that learning itself engages LTP in the cerebral cortex as a way to strengthen synaptic connections.”BN

The plastic brain

Within the brain, the pathways and regions that are most utilized generally grow and become stronger while other parts shrink. “The brain is very Darwinian, it’s survival of the fittest,” says Edward Taub, PhD, a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who has researched neuroplasticity since the 1970s. “At one time it was believed we did not use 90% of our brain. That is false. The brain is a zero sum game. Every part of the brain is used. It has enormous plasticity.”

Thus, by challenging the brain and forcing the use of different pathways, brain maps can be altered. And such changes offer young and old — even brain-injured individuals — an opportunity to learn or re-learn things. “Vocabulary can increase into age 90,” says Gary J. Kennedy, MD, a professor in the Dept. of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He also directs the geriatric psychiatry division at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, N.Y. “As people age they may be slower, but they are capable of more and more complex projects.” That is our mental capacity can be maintained however our mental agility (quickness) may diminish.

Brain volume shrinks up to 1% every year after age 65.

To best illustrate neuroplasticity, consider stroke patients with damaged limbs. Contrary to traditional therapy, which works to strengthen the good limb, Taub restrains the uncompromised limb, forcing patients to use the damaged arm or leg. The therapy, constraint-induced movement therapy, also known as CI therapy, helps to rewire the brain.

“The more you use it, more neurons are available … the more demand for cortical space and the more the patient is able to use the [damaged] arm,” Taub said. Over time, small steps lead to improvements in activities of daily living. Ultimately, the damaged limb, at least in part, recovers because, although the brain does not regrow damaged areas, it re-routes around them.

When the brains of CI patients were examined, a tremendous increase in grey matter was detected, and interestingly, Taub says, the healthy part of the brain was recruited for the task. Some of Taub’s research was published in the Nov. 1, 2006, Journal of the American Medical Association.

CI applications are now being explored for other forms of brain injury.

Young brains, old brains?

Mental agility begins declining around age 24, says Dr. Fortanasce. But there is a big difference between agility and capacity. “I may be slower, but what I know now far outweighs what I knew at 24,” he says. “Some individuals perform their greatest creative work in late life. Verdi, for example, composed Othello at 73 and Falstaff at 79.”

Greg Jicha, MD, PhD, assistant professor of neurology at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine, shares related stories, such as that of an 82-year-old who learned to play the trumpet. “I’ve heard people say, ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’ That can’t be further from the truth,” says Dr. Jicha, who also heads the healthy brain aging research group at the university’s Sanders-Brown Center on Aging. “When you look at the plasticity of the adult brain, it is amazing.”

Mental agility, but not capacity, begins declining around age 24.

But age also brings anatomic changes. Brain weight and blood flow to the brain decrease by 20%. The number of fibers and nerves decrease by 37%. And brain volume shrinks up to 1% every year after age 65. Dr. Fortanasce also points to hormonal shifts, with the presence of dopamine and serotonin diminishing as cortisol, an aging hormone, increases. “Between age 20 and 70, we lose nearly 90% of youth hormones.”

So what keeps some brains younger than their chronology? Experts point to a prescription of neurobics. This concept includes life-long learning, trying new things, a healthy diet, social interactions, sleep and physical activity. “Exercise can actually increase neurogenesis and increase the size of the hippocampus,” says Dr. Fortanasce, who promotes isometrics and weight-bearing exercise. “Exercise also increases youth hormones. And novelty, doing new things, builds branches.”

In a 2006 study in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, Brandeis University researchers found that strength training increased the participants’ working memory span. The higher the level of resistance, the more memory improved, suggesting that strength training benefits not only the muscles but also the mind.

Dr. Locatelli suggests reversing daily patterns. People who take the same route to work every day need to push themselves beyond their comfort zones. A person can try to eat using his or her weaker hand, for instance. Or someone could listen to another type of music than the type usually favored. Activate unfamiliar areas of the brain, Dr. Locatelli says. The key is new places, socializing with different people, and reading new things.

And primary care physicians can help communicate this message.

“When a patient expresses concern about memory loss, never cast it off as associated with age,” says Tom Perls, MD, MPH, associate professor of medicine at Boston University Medical Center. Dr. Perls also heads the New England Centenarian Study. “This is an incredibly serious issue. Losing brain function is devastating.” Ask about memory. And rule out other conditions like depression or low thyroid first. “Encourage them to exercise the brain in novel and complex ways,” he says.

Exercising new connections

So what about dance steps? At McGill University in Montreal, researchers found that the tango may be better than walking for improving execution of complex tasks because it incorporates elements found in standard neurological rehabilitation programs. It’s also fun and social.

Participants, ages 62 to 90, were randomly assigned to a walking group or a tango dancing group, meeting two hours twice a week for 10 weeks. The tango group improved in balance, posture and motor coordination, as well as cognition.

Physical and mental exercise improve cognitive function.

According to new research published in the October issue of the journal Nature Neuroscience, University College London scientists say complex brain processes that enable the memorization and replication of activities such as playing the piano or riding a bicycle require the execution of complicated sequences of movements involving dozens of muscles. According to their research, pianists who learned and practiced their art from an early age had elevated amounts of myelin. This finding suggests that when people learn new skills, myelination might occur. Earlier studies indicated that brains of patients diagnosed with senile dementia had lowered amounts of myelin.

The emphasis, though, is the importance of embracing the complex and novel. And Joe Hardy, PhD, a cognition neuroscientist who develops brain plasticity training programs, says some common-sense advice from physicians is not based on good evidence. “They often recommend doing crossword puzzles,” he says. “But evidence suggests that crossword puzzles are not helpful.”

Hardy has been developing brain games for the San Francisco-based company Posit Science. The games — the Brain Fitness Program and Insight — have been tested in several randomized clinical trials funded by the National Institutes of Health. The results indicate that the brain age clock can roll back 10 years. “The key thing in terms of exercise for the brain: You need to do new things, thus forming new paths,” he says.

Some have even compared this new era in brain health to the 1950s, when heart health came to the fore. “New things are coming out all the time, and we are going to see a revolution in brain health,” Hardy says. “I think this is going to change the way people age.”

Next: Rest and Recovery