Monday, August 5, 2013

Mind games: serious business

“The video game of the future will not only sense what is going on in your brain but also make your brain more plastic by shooting electricity through it. Remember when your mother told you not to sit too close to the TV? Now you're part of the TV.”

“Recent findings have shown that a Posit program similar to the one I'd be trying effectively reversed cognitive aging by eleven years, on average, after only ten hours of training. Great! If I complete the program a bunch of times, I can find out who I was in a previous life.”

“Compared with my poky old brain, my souped-up brain, according to Merzenich, has more synapses, better wiring, stronger connections, and more forceful activity. (Doesn't that sound like an ad for a five-thousand-dollar stereo?)”

As befits the first woman elected to the Harvard Lampoon and a former Saturday Night Live writer, the piece from which these quotes come is a funny take on an increasingly serious topic for the baby boomer generation: replenishing the neurons in the aging brain and keeping its synapses firing in order to stave off dementia and the dreaded diagnosis of Alzheimer's.
“As recently as a few decades ago, most biologists thought that the brain was fully formed during childhood and, like a photograph after it’s been developed, was doomed to degrade thereafter,” Patricia Marx writes in her July 29 New Yorker article Mentally Fit: Workouts at the Brain Gym. But research has shown that the brain has a lifelong ability to create new neurons and connections that can have rejuvenating benefits and prevent the brain from shrinking. And as her article demonstrates, entrepreneurs are coming out of the woodwork to help us accomplish that goal. Marx writes, “According to a recent report issued by SharpBrains, the amount spent in 2012 on brain fitness was more than a billion dollars, and by 2020, it is estimated, that figure will exceed six billion dollars.”
You can read an excerpt from Marx's article after the jump. You might also want to have a look at our Healthy Brain Forum. We've tried hard to select some of the best books on brain health and to present exclusive dialogues with some of the top experts in the field.
Preserving brainpower is a daunting topic that will take a lot of sifting and pondering in the years to come. As Jerome Groopman's article on Alzheimer's research in the June 24 issue of The New Yorker demonstrated, the path to prevention is anything but clear. And that's because the workings of the brain are so miraculously intricate. Here's how David Eagleman describes it in Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain:
Your brain is built of cells called neurons and glia — hundreds of billions of them. Each one of these cells is as complicated as a city. And each one contains the entire human genome and traffics billions of molecules in intricate economies. Each cell sends electrical pulses to other cells, up to hundreds of times per second. If you represented each of these trillions and trillions of pulses in your brain by a single photon of light, the combined output would be blinding. The cells are connected to one another in a network of such staggering complexity that it bankrupts human language and necessitates new strains of mathematics. A typical neuron makes about ten thousand connections to neighboring neurons. Given the billions of neurons, this means there are as many connections in a single cubic centimeter of brain tissue as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy. The three-pound organ in your skull — with its pink consistency of Jell-o — is an alien kind of computational material. It is composed of miniaturized, self-configuring parts, and it vastly outstrips anything we've dreamt of building. So if you ever feel lazy or dull, take heart: you're the busiest, brightest thing on the planet.
Excerpt from Mentally Fit: Workouts at the Brain Gym by Patricia Marx
Do I seem smarter than I did a few weeks ago? Since then, I’ve spent many hours in front of my computer, challenged by crucially important questions, like which two butterflies of the five that flickered onscreen for seventy-nine milliseconds were the matching pair, whether the ripples that rippled across the little magenta square went this way or that way, and how many more drills I must complete before I’m smart enough to date Harold Bloom. Remember when we called these sorts of activity video games and yelled at our kids for playing them? Now we refer to them as brain exercises, and we hope and trust that our digital exertions will make us as mentally agile as teenagers wielding M27 assault rifles in Call of Duty: Black Ops II.
Teenagers, I said—not twenty-seven-year-olds. That’s because most neuroscientists believe that by our late twenties the speed of our mental processing has begun to ebb, and so has our attention prowess and our working memory—i.e., the scratch pad in our minds that allows us to remember information long enough to calculate the tip on the taxi fare or . . . wait, what was I saying? While it is consoling that our vocabulary improves over the years, and that we oldsters are better at big-picture thinking and are more empathetic, still, by the advanced age of twenty there is a very good chance that our prefrontal cortex (the brains of the brain, responsible for problem-solving, decision-making, and complex thought) has already begun to shrink. We humans, by the way, are the only animals whose brains are known to atrophy as we grow older, and—yay, us again—we are also sui generis in suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. As distinctions go, this may not be as auspicious as, say, the opposable thumb. Nor is it necessarily the first chapter of a story that ends with being found wandering through Central Park in your pajamas. I’m also not guaranteeing that this might not happen to you. At an Alzheimer’s Association conference in Boston last week, researchers described a newly coined condition called “subjective cognitive decline.” According to a front-page article in the Times about these ominous findings, “People with more concerns about memory and organizing ability were more likely to have amyloid, a key Alzheimer’s-related protein, in their brains.” For the time being, there is nothing we can do about the amyloids, but in the past few years scientists and entrepreneurs have been claiming that there are measures one can take to minimize, slow down, or even reverse cognitive decline. With my fingers crossed, I travelled around the country to meet some of these authorities and find out how I could turbocharge my brain.
As recently as a few decades ago, most biologists thought that the brain was fully formed during childhood and, like a photograph after it’s been developed, was doomed to degrade thereafter, with neurons (nerve cells) fading like pigment on paper until you succumbed to senility. Today, we regard Alzheimer’s and other dementias as diseases, rather than as a consequence of normal aging. Moreover, we now consider the brain to be as labile as a digital image in the hands of a Photoshop fiend. The three-pound, pinkish-gray wrinkly guck in your skull contains about a hundred billion neurons. Each neuron can hook up with up to ten thousand others; hence, there are at least a hundred trillion neural connections in your brain, which is more than there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy. Not only does the brain have a lifelong ability to create new neurons; like a government with an unlimited highway budget, it has an endless capacity to build new roadways. Networks of linked neurons communicate chemically and electrically encoded data to one another (Hey, neuron, the keys are on the table) at junctures called synapses. Fresh neural trails are generated whenever we experience something new—learn the tango, try a liverwurst canapé, take a different route to work. Repeat the activity and the pathway will be reinforced. This is why London cabbies, whose job requires them to memorize a mesh of twenty-five thousand streets and thousands of landmarks, were found to have larger hippocampi than the city’s bus drivers, who are responsible for learning only a few routes. (The hippocampus plays a major role in memory.) The ability of the brain to establish new connections is called plasticity, and brain-fitness exercises are predicated on this mechanism. Working out has also been shown to revamp the brain and prevent it from shrinking.


  1. I've tried several "mind exercises", similar to the butterfly game, and I find I can get better and better at the game with practice. Whether or not this translates to other mental activities I still do not know. Trigonometry remains as opaque as ever. I still have to look up my cell phone number now and then.
    I once scored 1,000,000 points playing one of those jewel-matching games. Would this qualify you for a date with Harold Bloom?

  2. My mother is going to be 79 in two weeks, and has been worrying about losing her faculties for about 20 years now. Last year, my sister told her about an article that she'd read about how learning a new skill can help brain function by linking up new pathways. She suggested Mom should learn how to knit.

    Mom: I don't know how to knit.
    Sister: That's the point.

    1. mon tricot enthusiastAugust 6, 2013 at 8:57 AM

      I hope either your sister or you loves to knit. Knitting takes more than just brainwork--it needs finger dexterity, eyesight, and a certain temperament (patience). Otherwise, it is easy to become frustrated.
      Kudos to you for watching over your mother's mental health as well as her physical well-being!

  3. I enjoyed reading Eagleman's book... although if he's correct, I didn't really understand it. (As he writes: "You’re not perceiving what’s out there. You’re perceiving whatever your brain tells you... So the first lesson about trusting your senses is: don’t." And: "If our brains were simple enough to be understood, we wouldn’t be smart enough to understand them.")

    He also points this out: "If you think genes don’t matter for how people behave, consider this amazing fact: if you are a carrier of a particular set of genes, your probability of committing a violent crime goes up by eight hundred and eighty-two percent… if you carry these genes, you’re eight times more likely to commit aggravated assault, ten times more likely to commit murder, thirteen times more likely to commit armed robbery, and forty-four more likely to commit sexual assault… as regards that dangerous set of genes, you’ve probably heard of them. They are summarized as the Y chromosome. If you’re a carrier, we call you a male."

    1. Thanks RPS, for your interesting comments. It appears we now have something other than malevolent Fate to blame for failure and bad behavior-- The fault lies not in the stars, but in our genes.

      How are those statistics calculated? Male criminals outnumber female, young outnumber older, poor outnumber prosperous...but where does "more likely to commit" enter the equation? Commission is an act of the will, don't you think?