Boost Your Brain’s Plasticity to Combat Mental Aging

Mental stimulation, socializing, and exercise are among the secrets to a youthful brain.

If you want your mind to remain young and agile well into old age, here’s a foolproof formula: Do anything and everything you can every day to keep your brain cells active.

Research suggests that regularly putting the brain’s neurons through their paces helps promote neuroplasticity—the ability of the brain to grow and change in response to new information. Plast-icity helps slow, prevent and even reverse brain aging and raises the possibility that if we lose areas of the brain through strokes, disease, or other injuries, other parts of the brain might take over the functions of the affected areas.

A new study suggests that brain activity may do even more than promote the growth of neurons and their connections. It also appears to strengthen the nerve axons, the wiring that links brain cells to one another, by thickening the fatty myelin sheath that surrounds and insulates these fibers. Researchers confirmed this effect through a series of experiments in which they used a genetic process to make specific neurons in the brains of living mice sensitive to light. By manipulating light to activate or deactivate the neurons, the scientists were able to observe that neuronal activation increased the number of cells that produce myelin, causing thickening of the myelin sheaths within the active neural circuit. Thicker myelin sheaths enhanced the strength and speed of signals passing through axons, promoting more efficient mental processing. “The findings…may help to explain how the brain adapts in response to experience or training,” said the senior author of the study, which was published online April 10, 2014 in Science Express.

The changing brain

“It used to be thought that the adult brain was unchangeable,” says Amar Sahay, PhD, Principal Faculty at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and Assistant Professor at the Center for Regenerative Medicine and the Department of Psychiatry at MGH. “Now we know that the brain remains capable of both structural and functional change all life long. This study suggests one such adaptive capability.

“Previous research has identified a variety of other ways that the brain repairs injury and adapts to new knowledge and new demands. In addition to changes in the production of myelin, plasticity may involve structural changes that affect neuronal connections, synaptic changes that affect how neurons function, or circuit changes that involve the generation of new neurons from stem cells.”

Promoting plasticity

The strategies listed below promote neuroplasticity that may help prevent age-related changes such as declines in attention, memory, decision-making and processing speed.

Seven strategies that boost plasticity

If you wish to promote neuroplasticity and keep your brain flexible, adaptable, and capable of learning, you should strive to:

  • Get Plenty of Exercise. An active lifestyle with moderate amounts of aerobic activity performed on a regular basis has been linked with improved cognition and brain function, and the reversal of negative changes related to brain aging in older adults. Exercise boosts the circulation of oxygen-rich blood to the brain. More importantly, it appears to promote brain plasticity through the actions of an exercise-induced increase in the brain’s production of a growth factor called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which has been found to promote neurogenesis and synaptic growth and help prevent or reverse memory and concentration problems in healthy older people. A regimen of 30 minutes of exercise per day, at least five days per week, is suggested for healthy adults.
  • Stay Active Socially. Social interaction is richly complex, and offers many challenges that require the brain to work to make sense of ever-changing conditions. Research suggests that social interaction promotes neurogenesis, the formation and survival of new brain cells, and that the absence of social interaction may be damaging to the brain. Studies show that people who maintain close friendships and family ties have a lower probability of developing dementia.
  • Challenge Your Mind. Animal studies suggest that keeping the brain occupied and challenged with intellectually stimulating activities helps promote neurogenesis. Presenting the brain with new information and experiences, or engaging in activities such as computer brain-training programs, reading, playing chess, doing volunteer work, or taking dance lessons, can help keep the brain stimulated and growing. Evidence also suggests that regular engagement in challenging intellectual activities can help reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease (AD).
  • Reduce Your Stress Levels. Prolonged stress has been associated with impaired nerve cell function and reduced neurogenesis in a key memory region of the brain called the hippocampus. Over time, chronic stress can reduce the number of connections among brain cells, causing atrophy of important brain regions and increasing risk for dementia. Stress-reducing techniques such as meditation have been associated with increased brain volume and thickening of regions of the brain associated with attention, sensory processing, and memory, especially in older people. Other stress reducers include yoga, visualization, and other relaxation techniques, exercise, and enjoying soothing activities such as listening to music, reading, or soaking in a warm bath.
  • Eat Well. The brain thrives on a healthy, low-fat diet that is rich in vegetables and fruits and includes a balance of nutrients from eggs, lean meats, fish, nuts, legumes, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and healthful fats such as olive and canola oils and omega-3 fatty acids from cold-water fish. Excessive amounts of processed foods, caffeine, and alcohol should be avoided. Vitamin B-12—found in meat, fish, milk, and eggs—helps maintain normal functioning of the brain and nervous system and protects against brain atrophy linked to slowing of the brain’s ability to repair and replace neurons. Restricting caloric intake in a moderate fashion has been shown to protect neurons, and to promote the production of growth factors such as BDNF that enhance neuroplasticity.
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