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.
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
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
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!
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.