If you read the first article of this series, welcome back on this journey focused on “Enriching Heredity,” the title of the book by the mother or neuroplasticity, Marian Diamond. Her YouTube video, Older Brains, New Connections, is so invaluable that it is a regular homework assignment in my work.
Early research on neuroplasticity disproved the long-held belief of scientists that brains are hard-wired to live by the rules of genetic inheritance. Early studies focused on the architecture of the brain cells. The illustration of the brain cell, or neuron, in the sidebar can help flesh that out. The rounded spot near the center can represent the cell body. Extending out from the sides and bottom of the cell body are the dendrites. The several branches of the dendrites bring information into the cell body from somewhere in your body by way of an electrical charge that goes through the dendrites contributing to the formation of memories in spines that build up on the dendrites over time. Also, an electrical charge goes out through the axon, portrayed here at the top of the cell, to carry the message forward to the next cell.
Early researchers soon learned that the benefits for rats that lived in an enriched environment included an increase in the complexity of the branching of their dendrites as well as an increase in the spines on their dendrites. The enriched environmental impact improved their brain’s chemistry, architecture and performance … their memory and ability to learn also improved as a benefit of living in an enriched environment. These encouraging findings were found in research with rats, cats, birds, monkeys and humans. Essential components of an enriched environment included social interactions made possible by having as many as twelve animals in one large cage. It also required a variety of “toys” that were changed every few weeks affording the opportunity for complex new learning.
Watching the complex new learning and socialization from an impoverished environment in an adjacent cage did not result in these benefits to the brains of the observers. To paraphrase while using caution is generalizing to humans from lower animals, the evidence suggests it’s not enough to watch, you must do. Furthermore, you benefit from having friends nearby who are also pursuing complex new learning.
The next belief about neuroplasticity to be disproven was that the brain of any animal was far too complex to accommodate the birth of new cells. When a new dye (BrdU) could discriminate the new cells that were born in the brains of lower animals, it was still clear to scientists that human brains could not accommodate new cells. The thinking was that humans were too involved in such complex thinking as how to solve the economy; any new brain cells would just confuse such complex thinking. This dye, BrdU, was not considered safe in humans so this belief did not die. The rule of thumb was that you were born with more brain cells than remained viable. Use them or lose them was the concept. Reframed in the positive: Use them and they will grow.
So, back to the question of whether or not people birth new brain cells. It was not until 1998, when some people made their last contribution to science by donating their brains to research at their death, that it was proven that neurogenesis is among the gifts of our human brains. Then, in 2007, a novel study was done to measure blood volume in the hippocampus, the part of your brain that is important for memory and related to cognitive aging. That research found increased neurogenesis associated with improved cardiopulmonary and cognitive functioning. Their improved learning correlated with improvements in VO2max, the gold standard measure of aerobic fitness associated with exercise. These humans also had improved delayed recall. Four times a week for 12 weeks, these humans did low intensity warm up and stretching followed by 40 minutes at an aerobic pace and low intensity cool down and stretching after being aerobic.
That’s all they did! Surely being aerobic 40 minutes 4 times a week is a small price to pay for increased neurogenesis that includes improvements in heart, lung and brain functioning. And that could be especially valuable with associated improvements in learning and delayed recall.
That brings us to a guiding principle that will persist throughout this series of articles on Brain Health: By the time you do every evidence-based thing that has been associated with improving your brain chemistry, architecture and performance, probably the only side effects will be improvements in your general health. Is this permissible?
While Rudolph Tanzi, PhD, of Harvard works with others in ADRAG.org to end dementia, remember several things. Remember the guiding principle in the paragraph above. Remember that nothing I ever write is intended to be healthcare advice. Remember to learn as much as you can from evolving neuroscience and work with your healthcare provider to design your unique goals and strategies for achieving your own positively evolving personal best. Throughout your personal journey to vigorous longevity, remember to celebrate the role model you can provide for others in maximizing Brain Health for the long haul and Brain Power in business. Celebration of success is a component of Positive Psychology that can enhance your efforts. Remember that, if you celebrate your own successes in improving your general health and aerobic fitness, it’s possible that you are enhancing Brain Health in yourself and influencing it in those for whom you are a role model. Having aerobic fitness that improves with your consistent efforts would be a healthy way to be an Outlier.
Thus, you might be a powerful role model for contributing to the effort suggested by Brookmeyer and colleagues who predict that, if all we do is delay the onset of dementia by one year, we could have 9,200,000 fewer cases of dementia in the world by 2050. Surely the timing is urgent to make every feasible effort to improve Brain Health in ways that could also improve your physical health and wellbeing.
Marian Diamond was the first to flesh out how much could be accomplished in brain plasticity at any age. Just by having technicians hold and talk to their rats she found that neuroplasticity was driven in a positive direction along with a 50% increase in the lifespan of rats to the equivalent of 90 human years AND the same brain gains were observed across their entire rat lifespan!
Diamond predicted that humans could appreciate the same brain gains at any age; research in this article is just a beginning of sharing some cutting-edge neuroscience that has proven her prediction to be spot on. Now the fun begins as we fit the empowering advances of neuroscience into the culture and lifestyle of ourselves and of those we seek to serve. To help us with that, in the next article we’ll visit some Outliers.