Category Archives: brain health

Can Laughter Make Our Lives Better?

I think part of living a long and healthy life includes a good amount of humor. At least that certainly is true in my case. Here is a study on various aspects of humor in different situations.

Researchers report humor can be good in certain situation, but its effectiveness depends on your end goals.

Why do humorous dating profiles get more right swipes? Can being funny help solve problems? Is laughter really the best medicine?

Humor and the “good life” seem to go hand-in-hand. Funny people seem to move effortlessly through the world. Business articles and gurus prescribe humor as a key to effective workplace performance. The website for the African country of Eritrea even describes humor as “a tremendous resource for surmounting problems, enhancing your relationships, and supporting both physical and emotional health.”

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Humor appreciation does not always improve utilitarian outcomes, such as decision-making or health.

“Humor, Comedy and Consumer Behavior,” a paper by Caleb Warren, assistant professor of marketing in the UA Eller College of Management; Adam Barsky of the University of Melbourne; and A. Peter McGraw of the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business, looks beyond advertising to highlight how and when humor helps people reach their goals. Continue reading

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Physical Activity May Influence the Health of Future Offspring

It just keeps getting better. The mantra of my blog is eat less; move more; live longer. That has always referred to yourself, present and future, mind and body. Now comes a fascinating study from Germany that suggests that the exercise you do today may well influence the health of your future offspring. What could be better than that?

Physical and mental exercise is not only beneficial for your own brain, but can also affect the learning ability of future offspring – at least in mice. This particular form of inheritance is mediated by certain RNA molecules that influence gene activity. These molecules accumulate in both the brain and germ cells following physical and mental activity.

Prof. André Fischer and colleagues from the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE) in Göttingen and Munich and the University Medical Center Göttingen (UMG) report these findings in the journal Cell Reports.

 

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It is known that physical activity and cognitive training also improve learning ability in humans. However, it is not so easy to study in humans whether learning ability can be inherited epigenetically. NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain.

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Sitting is Bad for Your Brain, Not Just Your Heart or Metabolism

It’s been a couple of years now since I first learned the dangers of prolonged sitting. Someone even called ‘sitting the new smoking.‘ I thought that might have been excessive – might have been. However, this new information from UCLA researchers certainly adds resonance to the problem for seniors.

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Sitting too much is linked to changes in a section of the brain that is critical for memory, according to a preliminary study by UCLA researchers of middle-aged and older adults.

Studies show that too much sitting, like smoking, increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes and premature death. Researchers at UCLA wanted to see how sedentary behavior influences brain health, especially regions of the brain that are critical to memory formation.

METHOD

UCLA researchers recruited 35 people ages 45 to 75 and asked about their physical activity levels and the average number of hours per day they spent sitting over the previous week. Each person had a high-resolution MRI scan, which provides a detailed look at the medial temporal lobe, or MTL, a brain region involved in the formation of new memories.

The researchers found that sedentary behavior is a significant predictor of thinning of the MTL and that physical activity, even at high levels, is insufficient to offset the harmful effects of sitting for extended periods.

This study does not prove that too much sitting causes thinner brain structures, but instead that more hours spent sitting are associated with thinner regions, researchers said. In addition, the researchers focused on the hours spent sitting, but did not ask participants if they took breaks during this time.

The researchers next hope to follow a group of people for a longer duration to determine if sitting causes the thinning and what role gender, race, and weight might play in brain health related to sitting.

IMPACT

MTL thinning can be a precursor to cognitive decline and dementia in middle-aged and older adults. Reducing sedentary behavior may be a possible target for interventions designed to improve brain health in people at risk for Alzheimer’s disease, researchers said.

Please check out my Page – Do you know the dangers of too much sitting? for more details on the common practice.

Tony

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Alzheimer’s Disease Redefined

Researchers have published a new study framework that defines Alzheimer’s disease by brain changes, not symptoms.

“NIA-AA Research Framework: Towards a Biological Definition of Alzheimer’s Disease” was published in the April 2018 issue of Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association. First author Clifford R. Jack, Jr., M.D., of Mayo Clinic Rochester, MN and colleagues propose shifting the definition of Alzheimer’s disease in living people – for use in research – from the current one, based on cognitive changes and behavioral symptoms with biomarker confirmation, to a strictly biological construct. This represents a major evolution in how we think about Alzheimer’s.

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In 2011, the Alzheimer’s Association (AA) and the National Institute on Aging (NIA) at the U.S. National Institutes of Health convened experts to update the diagnostic guidelines for Alzheimer’s disease. NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain.

Understanding and effectively treating Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias may be the most difficult challenge for the medical/scientific community this century. The field has experienced monumental challenges developing new and effective drug therapies, not the least of which was the discovery that – until recently – clinical trials were conducted where up to 30% of participants did not have the Alzheimer’s disease-related brain change targeted by the experimental drug. Continue reading

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Even Old Brains Can Make New Neurons, Study

In research published in the journal Cell Stem Cell, scientists at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons present the most definitive evidence to date that the human brain makes new neurons throughout life.

Previous studies of animal brains have led many neuroscientists to conclude that the capacity for neurogenesis, or the production of new neurons, declines with age and virtually ceases in the mature brain. “In mice, researchers have shown that neurogenesis drops pretty dramatically after middle age,” said the study’s lead author Maura Boldrini, MD, PhD, a research scientist in psychiatry and a member of the Columbia Stem Cell Initiative. A recent study of human brains was also unable to find new neurons in adult brains.

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A neural stem cell in the brain. Image: Maura Boldrini / Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

The brain’s hippocampus, which is responsible for memory and learning, has been a major focus of studies on neurogenesis and stem cell biology. Although neuroimaging studies of humans show that continued growth in this structure occurs in adulthood, many scientists have argued that this represents existing neurons growing larger, or an expansion of blood vessels or other internal support structures, rather than the addition of new neurons. To address the question, investigators dissected and examined a representative sample of human hippocampi from healthy people of different ages after they died. Continue reading

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6 Steps to sharpen your brain – Harvard

At the risk of repeating myself I have had three cases of dementia/Alzheimer’s Disease in my family. They occurred on both my mother’s and father’s side, so I am totally paying attention to anything that might help to preserve my cognitive powers. I turned 78 in January. Here is Harvard Healthbeat on the subject.

Everyone has the occasional “senior moment.” Maybe you’ve gone into the kitchen and can’t remember why, or can’t recall a familiar name during a conversation. Memory lapses can occur at any age, but aging alone is generally not a cause of cognitive decline. When significant memory loss occurs among older people, it is generally not due to aging but to organic disorders, brain injury, or neurological illness.

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Studies have shown that you can help prevent cognitive decline and reduce the risk of dementia with some basic good health habits:

  • staying physically active
  • getting enough sleep
  • not smoking
  • having good social connections
  • limiting alcohol to one drink a day
  • eating a balanced diet low in saturated and trans fats.

Certain health conditions that can impair cognitive skills include diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, depression, and hypothyroidism. If you have any of these health issues, you can help protect your memory by following your doctor’s advice carefully.

Memory changes can be frustrating, but the good news is that, thanks to decades of research, you can learn how to get your mind active. There are various strategies we can use to protect and improve memory. Here are several you might try.

1. Keep learning

A higher level of education is associated with better mental functioning in old age. Experts think that advanced education may help keep memory strong by getting a person into the habit of being mentally active. Challenging your brain with mental exercise is believed to activate processes that help maintain individual brain cells and stimulate communication among them. Many people have jobs that keep them mentally active, but pursuing a hobby, learning a new skill, or volunteering for a project at work that involves a skill you don’t usually use can function the same way and help improve memory. Continue reading

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How music and rhythm impact our brains – Study

As regular readers know I am a music lover with a wide range of tastes. One of my favorite aspects of bike riding is the bluetooth speaker on my water bottle that lets me listen to the tunes on my iPhone as I pedal along. When my daughter, now 23 years old, was a toddler, I remember watching music videos with her and enjoying – The wheels on the bus go round and round … – too many times to count. That and numerous other tunes provided a regular source of engagement and enjoyment for her. At the time it just seemed like a fun thing to share with her. But, it seems she was getting a lot more out of it than I knew, according to a study presented at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society (CNS) meeting in Boston.

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A universal sign of motherhood is the lullaby. The world over, mothers sing to their babies, whether Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, their favorite song from the radio, or even random notes. This universality makes the simple lullaby a great window into the human mind. In a new study, cognitive neuroscientists found that lullabies soothe both moms and babies simultaneously, while play songs increase babies’ attention and displays of positive emotion toward their mothers.

The behavioral implications of music are vast, says Laura Cirelli of the University of Toronto Mississauga, who presented the new work on maternal singing at the 25th meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society. “Infant brains must be able to track auditory events in a predictive manner to make sense of music,” she explains, and many complex things are going on in their brains to make that possible.

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You don’t have to lose cognitive function while aging – Study

With Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia on both sides of my family, I can’t tell you how good it makes me feel to run across studies like this that say the wheels don’t have to come off your mental functions as you age.

Gradual and variable change in mental functions that occurs naturally as people age, not as part of a neurological disease such as Alzheimer’s disease, is one of the most challenging health issues encountered by older adults, says a report from the Institute of Medicine. The aging process affects the brain just like any other part of the body. Known as “cognitive aging,” the type and rate of change can vary widely among individuals. Some will experience very few, if any, effects, while others may experience changes in their memory, speed of processing information, problem solving, learning, and decision-making abilities. The committee that carried out the study and wrote the report proposed three top actions individuals can take to help maintain optimal cognitive function with age.

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“Changes in mental functions and capabilities are a part of aging and occur with everyone,” said committee chair Dan G. Blazer, the J.P. Gibbons Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C. “The extent and nature of these changes vary widely and are gradual, and aging can have both positive and negative effects on cognition. Wisdom and knowledge can increase with age, while memory and attention can decline.”

Aging can affect cognitive abilities needed to perform daily tasks, such as driving, following recipes, adhering to medication schedules, and paying bills, the committee said. As they get older, individuals of all ages should take the following three steps to help promote cognitive health:

Be physically active.
Reduce and manage cardiovascular disease risk factors, including high blood pressure, diabetes, and smoking.
Regularly discuss and review health conditions and medications that might influence cognitive health with a health care professional. A number of medications can have a negative effect — temporary or long term –on cognitive function when used alone or in combination with other medication.

Other actions that may promote cognitive health: Continue reading

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Can Exercise Help Me Learn?

“Exercise helps you to learn on three levels: first, it optimizes your mind-set to improve alertness, attention and motivation; second, it prepares and encourages nerve cells to bind to one another, which is the cellular basis for logging in new information; and third, it spurs the development of new nerve cells from stem cells in the hippocampus,” so says Spark, the revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. Author John J. Ratey, M.D., is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Besides, Spark, he also wrote A User’s Guide to the Brain among other books.

The hippocampus plays a major role in the consolidation of information from long term memory and short term memory. So, clearly, exercise plays an important role for seniors who are concerned about their memory failing in their latter years.

One distinction needs to be made here. You can’t learn difficult material while you are exercising because blood is shunted away from the prefrontal cortex and this hampers your executive function. Dr. Ratey quotes a study of college students who were working out on treadmills and exercise bikes at a high rate. They performed poorly on tests of complex learning. “However blood flow shifts back almost immediately after you finish exercising, and this is the perfect time to focus on a project that demands sharp thinking and complex analysis.”

He enumerates an experiment that was done on 40 adults aged 50 to 64. They were asked to do one 35 minute treadmill session at either 60 percent or 70 percent of maximum heart rate. Afterwards, they were asked to list alternative uses for common objects, like a newspaper. It is used for reading, but can be used to wrap fish, line a bird cage, etc. Half of the group watched a movie and the other half exercised. They were tested three times, before the session, immediately after the session and then 20 minutes later. The results of the movie watchers showed no change, but the runners improved their processing speed and cognitive flexibility after just one session. “Cognitive flexibility is an important executive function that reflects our ability to shift thinking and to produce a steady flow of creative thoughts and answers as opposed to a regurgitation of the usual responses. The trait correlates with high performance levels in intellectually demanding jobs.” The doctor recommends going for a short, intense run at lunchtime ahead of an important brain-storming session at work.

spark-book I have enjoyed Dr. Ratey’s book and recommend it to readers of the blog. You can get a look at the book on the Amazon website and purchase it from there if you like it.

As regular readers know, I lost an aunt to Alzheimer’s and my mother suffered from dementia in her final years. I am a total believer in this exercise-learning hypothesis. If I don’t ride my bike every day, I manage a five mile walk, climb 30 flights of stairs, or take a trip to the health club. I ain’t sittin’ around doin’ nothin’.

I have repeated the phrase, Use it or Lose it time and again in this blog. In this case, using the body promotes healthy mental processes as well as good physical results.

Tony

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Brain Activity at Rest Provides Clue to Intelligence – Study

I am just starting my ninth year of writing this blog. It began as a weight loss aid, but has morphed into a general good health and longevity tool. As regular readers know, my family has at least three cases of Alzheimer’s Disease/dementia. So, I am totally psyched on my brain and working to keep it healthy and functional since I just turned 78 in January. For that reason, I was fascinated by this study from Sydney, Australia on intelligence.

The ability of an adult to learn and to perform cognitive tests is directly linked to how active the brain is at rest, UNSW researchers have found.

The study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Brain Imaging and Behaviour, found that how well an elderly adult performed on language recall, memory executive function tests was directly related to the activity of the brain while in a resting state, or not doing any specific tasks.

 

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“The next stage in research would be to examine if this resting state activity of the brain can be modified by training,” says Professor Perminder Sachdev. NeuroscienceNews.com image is adapted from the UNSW news release.

Researchers from the Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA) at UNSW Sydney used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) images of the brain in 67 cognitively healthy adults aged between 73 to 90 years. The MRI images captured activity of the whole brain at rest when the participants were not thinking of anything in particular and had their eyes closed. They were also tested on their ability to perform three common neuropsychological tests, administered by trained psychology graduates.

“We found that the human brain is already somewhat pre-determined to do well or perform poorly in testing,” said lead researcher Professor Perminder Sachdev, Co-Director of CHeBA. “Brains differ from each other in terms of resting state activity and it’s not an even playing field. If there is activity in certain brain networks when the brain isn’t doing anything, then that person is predisposed to do better than others on the tasks that rely on that network.”

In the past, similar research had focused on specific brain regions, however this study examined 3D “voxel” images of the whole brain, thereby not constraining the results based on previous knowledge.

The results found that how well an individual did on language and executive function tests was linked with functional connectivity during rest in the frontal and temporal cortices. For memory retrieval, strong resting state activity was located in the inferior temporal cortices.

“The next stage in research would be to examine if this resting state activity of the brain can be modified by training. There is a possibility that training could boost the brain’s intrinsic network, improving overall mental performance and possibly prevent cognitive decline or even dementia,” Professor Sachdev said.

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2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee Submits Scientific Report

Eat less; move more; live longer has been the mantra of this blog for years. I am always gratified to see those sentiments echoed elsewhere. The latest version comes from the government of all places and it dwells particularly on the aspect of exercise.

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The 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee, a group of nationally recognized experts in physical activity and public health, has submitted its recommendations to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary and disbanded.

The 2018 Scientific Report reinforces the recommendations included in the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines that physical activity reduces the risk of a large number of diseases and conditions. In addition to disease prevention benefits, the Scientific Report includes findings that regular physical activity provides a variety of benefits that help people sleep better, feel better, and perform daily tasks more easily. The Committee also found that some benefits happen immediately, on the same day a single bout of physical activity is performed.

Expanding on findings from the Advisory Committee Scientific Report, 2008, the 2018 Committee identified health benefits of physical activity that had not been previously identified including:

Improved bone health and weight status for children ages 3 to 5
Improved cognitive function for children ages 6 to 13
Decreased risk of certain cancers, dementia, and excessive weight gain for adults
Improved quality of life and sleep for adults
Reduced feelings of anxiety and depression in adults
Additional benefits for specific population including older adults, women who are pregnant or postpartum, and individuals with pre-existing medical conditions

Additionally, the Committee found strong or moderate evidence that more time spent in sedentary behavior is related to greater all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease mortality and incidence, type 2 diabetes incidence, and the incidence of certain cancers.

Get Involved: The Department has published the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee Scientific Report online and the public is encouraged to view the Scientific Reportand provide written comments to the federal government at https://health.gov/paguidelines/pcd. The comment period will be open until 11:59 pm E.T. April 2, 2018.

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Brain Learns to Hit the Repeat Button in Pursuit of Pleasure

In a scientific first, researchers have observed in mice how the brain learns to repeat patterns of neural activity that elicit the all-important feel-good sensation. Until today, the brain mechanisms that guide this type of learning had not been measured directly, according to Neuroscience News.

This research offers key insights into how brain activity is shaped and refined as animals learn to repeat behaviors that evoke a feeling of pleasure. The findings also point to new strategies for targeting disorders characterized by abnormal repetitive behaviors, such as addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD.

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This image is an artistic interpretation of the authors’ work. Within a myriad of many pixel-like neurons, an obvious pattern emerges from more active red pixels and from parallel, less-active blue pixels: the letters corresponding to the word reward. NeuroscienceNews.com image is credited to Gil Costa.

The study, led by researchers at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute, the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown and the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley), was published in Science.

“It’s no secret that we derive pleasure from doing things we enjoy, such as playing our favorite video game,” said Rui Costa, DVM, PhD, senior author and the associate director and CEO of Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute. “These results reveal that the brain learns which activity patterns lead to feel-good sensations, and reshapes itself to more efficiently reproduce those patterns.” Continue reading

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6 Habits that Damage the Brain – Infographic

Because both Alzheimer’s and dementia run in my family, I am acutely concerned about keeping my brain healthy as well as anything that might damage it.

On the positive side, check out my Page Important Facts About Your Brain (and Exercise Benefits) as well as Important Facts About Brain Fitness.

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The final item names smoking. To learn more about the damage smoking does to your body and your general health, check out my Page How Many Ways Does Smoking Harm You?

Tony

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The impact of exercise on the brain

On the premise that one picture is worth 1000 words, here are 2000 words worth of pictures. Regular readers know I feel strongly about the positive impact of exercise on the brain. If you would like to read further on it, check out my Page – Important facts about your brain (and exercise benefits).

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Tony

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Aerobic exercise may ease some Alzheimer’s symptoms

Regular readers how focused I am on the connection between exercise and the brain. I lost three family members to Alzheimer’s Disease or another form of dementia. And, I just turned 78 two weeks ago. So, I was most interested in this report on the benefits of aerobic exercise on Alzheimer’s symptoms. When you finish reading, please check out my Page – Important facts about  your brain (and exercise benefits.)

Alzheimer’s Disease is a brain disorder that destroys memory and thinking skills over time. It is the most common form of dementia in older adults. There is presently no cure for the condition, though treatment options are available. Today, some 5.3 million Americans live with Alzheimer’s Disease, and it is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. The number of older adults who will develop AD is expected to more than triple by 2050.

Geriatrics experts have suggested that exercising can improve brain health in older adults. The World Health Organization (WHO) has recommendations for how much older adults should exercise. They suggest that older adults perform 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise (such as brisk walking), 75 minutes a week of vigorous aerobic training, or a combination of the two types. The WHO also recommends older adults perform muscle-strengthening exercises on at least two or more days a week. Continue reading

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Miles between Davis and Mozart: Brains of Jazz and Classical Musicians Work Differently

Music is one of the great joys of my life. I have a bluetooth speaker on my bike and I listen to music on my daily rides. My iPhone has about 15 gigabytes of jazz, classics and classic rock so I have the entire spectrum available. Consuming music, however, is not the same as producing it.

Different processes occur in the brains of jazz and classical pianists while playing the same piece of music, researchers report in Neuroscience News.

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Keith Jarret, world-famous jazz pianist, once answered in an interview when asked if he would ever be interested in doing a concert where he would play both jazz and classical music: “No, that’s hilarious. […] It’s like a chosen practically impossible thing […] It’s [because of] the circuitry. Your system demands different circuitry for either of those two things.” Where non-specialists tend to think that it should not be too challenging for a professional musician to switch between styles of music, such as jazz and classical, it is actually not as easy as one would assume, even for people with decades of experience.

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