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6 Surprising Things That Affect Your Brain

 

Brain scientists in recent years have discovered a number of  surprising ways  that the brain influences our overall health, as well as  how our behavior  influences the health of our brain. And unlike in the  days of old — when  scientists believed the brain was “fixed” after  childhood, only to start an  inexorable decline in the middle to later  years — today, research is showing  that the brain is perfectly capable  of changing, healing and “rewiring” itself  to an unexpected degree.

It turns out that the age of your brain may be a lesser influence on its  structure than what you do with it. Pursuits that require intense  mental focus, like language  learning, “switch on” the nucleus basalis, the  control mechanism for  neuroplasticity.

In short, neuroplasticity means you have some control over your  cranial  fitness. While brain function naturally deteriorates somewhat as  you age  (though not nearly as much as you might think), various  strategic approaches  can create new neural pathways and strengthen  existing ones as long as you  live. What’s more, these efforts to build a  better brain can deliver lasting  rewards for your overall health.

Here are just a few of neuroscience’s most empowering recent discoveries.

Your Thoughts Affect Your  Genes

We tend to think of our genetic heritage as a fait accompli.  At our  conception, our parents handed down whatever genetic legacy they  inherited — genes for baldness, tallness, disease or whatever — and now  we’re left playing  the hand of DNA we were dealt. But, in fact, our  genes are open to being  influenced throughout our lifetime, both by what  we do and by what we think,  feel and believe.

The new and growing field of “epigenetics” studies extra-cellular  factors  that influence genetic expression. While you may have heard that  genes can be  influenced by diet and exercise, many researchers are now  exploring the ways  that thoughts, feelings and beliefs can exert the  same epigenetic effect. It  turns out that the chemicals catalyzed by our  mental activity can interact with  our genes in a powerful way. Much  like the impacts of diet, exercise and  environmental toxins, various  thought patterns have been shown to turn certain  genes “on” or “off.”

The Research

In his book The  Genie in Your Genes (Elite Books, 2009), researcher Dawson Church, PhD,  explains the  relationship between thought and belief patterns and the  expression of  healing- or disease-related genes. “Your body reads your mind,” Church  says. “Science is discovering that while we may have a fixed set of   genes in our chromosomes, which of those genes is active has a great  deal to do  with our subjective experiences, and how we process them.”

One recent study conducted at Ohio University demonstrates vividly  the  effect of mental stress on healing. Researchers gave married couples  small  suction blisters on their skin, after which they were instructed  to discuss  either a neutral topic or a topic of dispute for half an  hour. Researchers then  monitored the production of three wound-repair  proteins in the subjects’ bodies  for the next several weeks, and found  that the blisters healed 40 percent  slower in those who’d had especially  sarcastic, argumentative conversations  than those who’d had neutral  ones.

Church explains how this works. The body sends a protein signal to  activate  the genes associated with wound healing, and those activated  genes then code  blank stem cells to create new skin cells to seal the  wound. But when the  body’s energy is being “sucked up” by the production  of stress biochemicals  like cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine,  like it is during a nasty fight,  the signal to your wound-healing genes  is significantly weaker, and the repair  process slows way down. By  contrast, when the body is not preparing for a  perceived threat, its  energy stores remain readily available for healing  missions.

Why It Matters to You

Just about every body comes equipped with the genetic material  it needs to  deal optimally with the physical challenges of daily life,  and the degree to  which you can maintain your mental equilibrium has a  real impact on your body’s  ability to access those genetic resources.  While habits of mind can be  challenging to break, deliberate activities  like meditation (see the following  studies) can help you refashion your  neural pathways to support less reactive  thought patterns.

Chronic Stress Can Prematurely Age  Your Brain

“There’s always going to be stress in the environment,” says Howard  Fillit,  MD, clinical professor of geriatrics and medicine at New York’s  Mount Sinai  School of Medicine and executive director of the Alzheimer’s  Drug Discovery  Foundation. “But what’s damaging is the distress we feel  internally in response  to it.”

Fillit’s distinction points to the bodywide reaction our bodies  experience  when we routinely respond to stress by going into  fight-or-flight mode. In our  brains, the stress response can cause  memory and other aspects of cognition to  become impaired, which is a  risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and accelerated  memory loss with  aging. One thing that can happen is you can start feeling a  lot older,  mentally, than you are.

“Patients come in complaining of faulty memory and wonder if they’re   beginning to get Alzheimer’s,” says Roberta Lee, MD, vice-chair of the   Department of Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center and  author of The  Superstress Solution (Random House, 2010). “Their workups and MRI scans  look normal. In the  interview, I ask them about their lifestyle and almost  invariably they  have compounded stress.”

The Research

Studies at the University of California–San Francisco have  shown that  repeated instances of the stress response (and their  accompanying floods of  cortisol) can cause shrinkage of the hippocampus —  a key part of the brain’s  limbic system vital to both stress regulation  and long-term memory. Call it the  downside of neuroplasticity.

Why It Matters to You

Aside from the obvious — no one wants his or her brain to age  faster than  it’s already going to — this research matters because it  suggests that you have  some influence over the rate of your own  cognitive change.

To protect the brain from cortisol-related premature aging, Lee  suggests  building stress disruptors into your regular routine: “A  five-minute period in  the middle of every day during which you do  absolutely nothing — nothing! — can  help a lot, especially if you are  consistent about it,” she says.

Her other recommendations include eating breakfast every day —  complex  carbohydrates (whole grains, veggies) and some protein.  “Breakfast helps your  metabolism feel like it won’t be stressed — caught  up in a starvation-gluttony  pattern,” she explains.

And when anxiety does strike, a good way to initiate the relaxation  response  is her “four-five breath” routine: breathing in through the  nose to a count of  four, then out through the mouth to a count of five.  “Repeat it four times and  you’ll feel the relaxation,” she says. “Best  of all, do the four breaths twice  daily, at the beginning and end of the  day.”

Meditation Rewires Your  Brain

Meditation and other forms of relaxation and mindfulness not only  change  your immediate state of mind (and, correspondingly, your  biochemical stress  level and gene expression), they also can alter the  very structure of your  brain. Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, PhD,  cofounder of the San Francisco–based  Wellspring Institute for  Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, has extensively  studied the  effect of meditation on the brain, with a particular focus on how   neuroplasticity allows for permanent changes for the better in your gray   matter.

The Research

“Of all the mental trainings — affirmations, psychotherapy,  positive  thinking, yoga — the one that has been far and away the most  studied, in terms  of effects on the brain, is meditation,” Hanson says.  Some of the most  prominent research has come from the collaboration  between French-born Buddhist  monk and author Matthieu Ricard and  University of Wisconsin–Madison  neuroscientist Richard Davidson, PhD.  Their studies have shown that a high  ratio of activity in the left  prefrontal areas of the brain can mark either a  fleeting positive mood  or a more ingrained positive outlook.

Brain-imaging tests have shown that Ricard and other veteran Buddhist   meditators demonstrate initial heightened activity in this region,  along with a  rapid ability to recover from negative responses brought on  by frightening  images shown to them by researchers. This suggests that  their long-term  meditation practice has helped build brains that are  able to not just enjoy but  sustain a sense of positive well-being, even  in stressful moments.

Why It Matters to You

“Stimulating areas of the brain that handle positive emotions  strengthens  those neural networks, just as working muscles strengthens  them,” Hanson says,  repeating one of the basic premises of  neuroplasticity. The inverse is also  true, he explains: “If you  routinely think about things that make you feel mad  or wounded, you are  sensitizing and strengthening the amygdala, which is primed  to respond  to negative experiences. So it will become more reactive, and you  will  get more upset more easily in the future.”

By contrast, meditative practices stimulate the anterior cingulate  cortex,  the part of the brain’s outermost layer that controls attention  (this is how  meditation can lead to greater mindfulness, Hanson  explains), as well as the  insula, which controls interoception — the  internal awareness of one’s own  body. “Being in tune with your body via  interoception keeps you from damaging  it when you exercise,” Hanson  says, “as well as building that pleasant, simple  sense of being ‘in your  body.’” Another plus of a strong insula is an increased  sensitivity to  “gut feelings” and intuitions and greater empathy with  others.

Perhaps best of all, meditation develops the circuitry in the left   prefrontal cortex, where the unruffled monks showed so much activity.  “That’s  an area that dampens negative emotion, so you don’t get so  rattled by anger or  fear, shame or sorrow,” Hanson says.

“Deciding to be mindful can alter your brain so that being mindful is  easier  and more natural,” he explains. “In other words, you can use  your mind to  change your brain to affect your mind.”

Your Brain Learns By  Doing

The mirror neuron system is the name for those regions of the brain  with  synapses that fire whether you’re actually doing or merely watching  an action — as long as you’ve done it previously. Doing an action lays  down neural  connections that fire again when you watch the same action.  This accounts for  the connection you feel when viewing a sport you’ve  played, or why you wince  when you see someone else get hurt.

The Research

Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues in the Department of  Neuroscience at  the University of Parma in Italy first noted the mirror  effect while studying  the brains of macaque monkeys. When a monkey was  watching one of the  researchers pick up a peanut, the same neurons fired  as if the monkey — likely  a seasoned peanut gatherer — had picked up  the nut itself. The researchers  labeled these specific cells “mirror  neurons.” In the human brain, entire  regions light up in response to a  familiar action; this endows us with a  full-fledged mirror system.

Why It Matters to You

The existence of the mirror system helps explain why learning a  new skill is  easier if you try doing it early in life. This includes  doing it clumsily,  rather than hanging back watching your instructor or a  video until you think  you “have it.” Watching before you try means that  you will probably see very  little; watching after you try will engage  the mirror system, increasing your  brain’s power to “get it.”

As London-based neuroscientist Daniel Glaser, PhD, puts it, “When you  look  at something you have done before, you are actually using more of  your brain to  see it, so there’s a richer information flow. Until you  started playing tennis,  you couldn’t see the difference between a good  topspin stroke and a bad one;  after a few weeks of practice, when your  coach demonstrates the stroke, you  really get it visually. And you can  thank the mirror system for that.”

The mirror system is also what endows you with the empathic ability  to feel  the pain or joy of others, based on what you register on their  faces. “When we  see someone else suffering or in pain, mirror neurons  help us to read her or  his facial expression and actually make us feel  the suffering or the pain of  the other person,” writes UCLA neurologist  Marco Iacoboni, MD, PhD, in his  book, Mirroring People (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008). “These moments, I will argue, are the foundation of empathy.”

Growing Older Can Make You  Smarter

For some time, the prevailing view of a brain at midlife was that  it’s “simply a young brain slowly closing down,” observes Barbara  Strauch. But she  notes that recent research has shown that middle age is  actually a kind of  cranial prime time, with a few comedic twists thrown  in for fun.

“Researchers have found that — despite some bad habits — the brain is at  its  peak in those years. As it helps us navigate through our lives, the  middle-age  brain cuts through the muddle to find solutions, knows whom  and what to ignore,  when to zig and when to zag,” she writes. “It stays  cool. It adjusts.”

The Research

Brain scientists used to be convinced that the main “driver” of  brain aging  was loss of neurons — brain-cell death. But new scanning  technology has shown  that most brains maintain most of their neurons  over time. And, while some  aspects of the aging process do involve  losses — to memory, to reaction time — there are also some net gains,  including a neat trick researchers call “bilateralization,” which  involves using both the brain’s right and left  hemispheres at once.

Strauch cites a University of Toronto study from the 1990s, soon  after  scanning technology became available, that measured the  comparative ability of  young and middle-age research subjects to match  faces with names. The expected  outcome was that older subjects would do  worse at the task, but not only were  they just as competent as younger  subjects, PET scans revealed that, in  addition to the brain circuits  used by the younger crowd, the older subjects  also tapped into the  brain’s powerful prefrontal cortex. As some of their  circuits weakened,  they compensated by using other parts of the brain.

Ultimately, this means the effects of age caused them to use — and strengthen — more of their brains, not less.

Why It Matters to You

Gene Cohen, MD, PhD, who directs the Center on Aging, Health  and Humanities  at George Washington University Medical Center, notes  that this ability to use  more of your cognitive reserves strengthens  your problem-solving ability as you  enter the middle years, and it makes  you more capable of comfortably  negotiating contradictory thoughts and  emotions. “This neural integration makes  it easier to reconcile our  thoughts with our feelings,” he wrote in “The Myth  of the Midlife  Crisis” (Newsweek, Jan. 16, 2006). Like meditation, the  middle-age tendency toward bilateralization seems to promote your  ability to  stay cool under pressure.

There are things you can do to amplify this increased strength. “Our  brains  are built to roll with the punches,” Strauch writes, “and better —  or more  carefully cared for — brains roll best.” Studies show multiple  ways to build  long-term brain health: from healthy eating, exercise and  conscious relaxation  to active social bonds, challenging work and  continuing education. Good advice,  it would seem, for a brain at any  age.

A Teenage Brain is Wired  Differently

While it was once thought that the brain’s architecture was basically  set by  age five or six, New York Times medical science and health  editor Barbara  Strauch explains her book The Primal Teen: What the New  Discoveries About the  Teenage Brain Tell Us About Our Kids (Anchor,  2003), new research shows that  the teen brain is “still very much a work  in progress, a giant construction  project. Millions of connections are  being hooked up; millions more are swept  away. Neurochemicals wash over  the teenage brain, giving it a new paint job, a  new look, a new chance  at life.”

The neurochemical dopamine floods the teen brain, increasing  alertness,  sensitivity, movement, and the capacity to feel intense  pleasure; it’s a recipe  for risk-taking. And, as anyone who has tried to  rouse a sleepy teen should  appreciate, brain chemicals that help set  sleep patterns go through major  shifts.

Knowing about these brain gyrations in young people can help parents  be a  little more patient and tolerant—and they offer some opportunities  too.   As Jay Giedd told PBS’s Frontline, “If a teen is doing music or  sports or  academics [during this period of brain change and  consolidation], those are the  cells and connections that will be  hardwired. If they’re lying on the couch or  playing video games or MTV,  those are the cells and connections that are going  to survive.”

By Jon Spayde, Experience Life

 

Experience Life magazine is an award-winning health and fitness  publication that aims to empower people to live their best, most authentic  lives, and challenges the conventions of hype, gimmicks and superficiality in  favor of a discerning, whole-person perspective. Visit experiencelife.com   to learn more and to sign  up for the Experience Life newsletter, or to subscribe  to the print or digital version.

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