By Luis S. R. Vas
A new science called neuroplasticity acknowledges that far from dying, adult brain cells can be restored and increased through judicious exercises
A girl suffering from dyslexia, a severe learning disability, is cured by just standing on one leg for 30 seconds, and concentrating on keeping still, and sitting on an exercise ball, and staying balanced for five minutes. A victim of obsessive-compulsive disorder whose obsession with cleanliness translates itself into a compulsion to wash her hands after touching every door knob and every handshake, is cured through a mental exercise termed self-directed neuroplasticity.
What is it all about?
Neuroplasticity is the recently discovered adult brain’s malleability and ability to change its structure, and reassign functions of some of its sections to other sections through physical and mental exercises. One of the most attractive features of plasticity-based therapies is that they are drug-free. They rely on retraining the brain through repetitious, challenging activity of the mind or body.
Plasticity is also the basis for a promising new therapy for stroke. Psychologist Edward Taub of the University of Alabama, USA, reasoned that if you constrain the unaffected arm of a patient whose stroke has immobilised the other arm, he would have to stop coddling the affected arm. Instead, in what Taub calls Constraint-Induced (CI) movement therapy, therapists have patients do exercises like grasping objects and fitting pegs into holes with their bad arms. According to Taub, CI therapy seems to recruit intact areas of the brain to take over from damaged regions – in this case, regions responsible for moving an arm. He says, “The sling that we use to constrain the good arm is not a magic talisman. The only thing it does is induce repetitive use of the affected limb, which in turn induces cortical reorganisation. The area responsible for producing movements of the affected arm more than doubles in size.”
What can you do to restructure and re-energise your brain at any age? Plenty, according to researchers. Based on their detailed understanding of the brain, neuroscientists suggest you choose activities that fit the following criteria:
• They should teach you something new. The brain is a learning machine. To keep it strong, you must continually develop new skills.
• They should be challenging. Activities should command your full and close attention to drive chemical changes in the brain.
• They should be progressive. You can begin a new activity at an easy level, but continuously challenge yourself to stay on the edge of your performance abilities – at your ‘threshold’ – so that you improve. This goes for old activities you enjoy, too: pushing yourself to improve will help your brain.
• They should engage your great brain processing systems. Tasks in which you must make fine distinctions about what you hear, see or feel, and use that information to achieve complex goals, drive the brain to change its abilities on different levels.
• They should be rewarding. Rewards amplify brain changes, leading to improved learning and memory. They turn up the production of crucial brain chemicals that contribute to learning, memory, and good spirits.
• They should be novel or surprising. Such exercises stimulates the brain machinery that makes you alert.
Tips from Researchers
Researchers suggest a great variety of exercises to choose from. These are not only therapeutic, but so much fun! Figure out what suits you.
• Add some dark chocolate to your diet. When you eat chocolate, you activate the systems in your brain that pump dopamine, an important brain chemical. These systems enable learning and memory, and help keep your brain sharp and fit.
• Go on a guided tour of a museum or another site of interest. Pay careful attention to what the guide says. When you get home, try to reconstruct the tour by writing an outline that includes everything you remember. Research into brain plasticity indicates that memory activities that engage all levels of brain operation – receiving, remembering and thinking – help to improve the function (and hinder the rate of decline) of the brain.
• Choose a song with lyrics you enjoy but have not memorised. Listen to the song as many times as necessary to write down all the lyrics. Then learn to sing along. Once you’ve mastered one song, move on to another! Developing better habits of careful listening will help you in your understanding, thinking and remembering. Reconstructing the song requires close attentional focus, and an active memory. When you focus, you release the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, a brain chemical that enables plasticity, and vivifies memory.
• Sit on a park bench or in a café. Stare straight ahead. Concentrate on everything you can see without moving your eyes, including in your peripheral vision. When you have finished, write a list of everything you saw. Then try again and see if you can add to your list. Scientists have shown that the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is crucial to focus and memory, falls off with memory loss, and is almost absent in Alzheimer’s patients. This activity should help you reinvigorate the controlled release of acetylcholine in your brain.
• If you’ve ever thought of learning to play an instrument or taking up an old one, now is a great time! Playing an instrument helps you exercise many interrelated dimensions of brain function, including listening, control of refined movements, and translation of written notes (sight) to music (movement and sound).
• Do a jigsaw puzzle that will be challenging for you – no fewer than 500 pieces. Completing one requires fine visual judgments about where pieces belong. It entails mentally ‘rotating’ the pieces, manipulating them in your hands, and shifting your attention from the small piece to the “big picture.”
• Set your television volume down a little from where you normally have it set. See, if by concentrating, you can follow just as successfully as when the volume was higher. As soon as that setting gets easy, turn it down another notch! You can’t get rid of radio static by turning up the volume. Many people raise the volume because their listening has become ‘detuned’ – a little fuzzy. Matching TV volume to a conversational level can help you catch every word when talking with others.
• Practise throwing and catching a ball up in the air. If you’re good at it, take up juggling. People who master these kinds of sensory-guided movement activities can hone their brains’ visual, tactile and hand-eye coordination responses, with widespread positive impacts for the brain.
• Find an activity you like to do by yourself – such as completing a crossword puzzle or knitting – and take it to the next level. See, if by concentrating, and putting more effort into the activity, you can succeed better or more quickly. Strive to take it up to a higher and more demanding level, where you re-engage the brain’s abilities.
• If you’re right-handed, use your left hand for daily activities (or vice-versa). Start with brushing your teeth left-handed, and practise until you have perfected it. Then try to build your way up to more complex tasks, such as eating. This is an exercise in which you know what you’re supposed to achieve, but must do it in a new and demanding learning context. Doing such an activity can drive your brain to make positive changes. Think of millions of neurons learning new tricks as you finally establish better control of that other hand!
• Add fish – especially fatty fish like salmon, sardine or mackerel – to your diet. Studies suggest that a diet rich in fish can improve cognitive function.
• Brain health is another reason to get on your bicycle, to the swimming pool, or wherever else you like to exercise your body. New research indicates that exercise has positive benefits for the hippocampus, a brain structure that is important for learning and memory. It can even help your brain create new cells.
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