The Trained Brain

We think of people who are plastic as shallow fakers. But when it comes to the brain, plasticity is a positive and natural trait

When it came to aging, American writer Mark Twain – ever the wise man and wisecrack – had a simple solution: “Age is an issue of mind over matter,” he said. “If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” While there might still be philosophical truth to Twain’s dictum, modern science is increasingly discovering just how strong the mind-body connection is. For instance, researchers found that when people with Alzheimer’s disease lose their memories they also lose their appetites. The reason: their sight deteriorates and they can’t see what’s on their plates, so they eat less. Or consider the more widespread case of fading memory. First we start forgetting names and where we left the car keys, and then we become worse at multitasking. We might even have so-called “senior moments,” where getting back to a task after someone interrupts us becomes more difficult.


As recently as a half century ago, people thought the human brain was fixed – once you reached adulthood your neurons would short-circuit and die and your brain would begin its inexorable deterioration. That changed in the 1970s, when researchers discovered that our brains are much more malleable than many people – Twain included – once thought. In The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science, Canadian psychiatrist Norman Doidge detailed just how “plastic” the brain could be. Doidge shared remarkable stories of recovery, such as the case of a blind man whose vision was restored through a sensor on his tongue, and a surgeon paralyzed by a stroke who regained use of his body by re-training his brain. Neuroscientists realized that there were also possibilities for people with healthy minds who simply wanted to keep themselves as mentally agile as possible as they aged.

“Just thinking can change your brain,” says neuroscientist Bryan Kolb, who studies how experience physically alters the mind. “If you have an idea today and you’re able to remember it tomorrow, your brain has been changed so the idea can form.” Kolb, the former president of the Canadian Society for Brain, Behaviour and Cognitive Science and a professor of neuroscience at the University of Lethbridge, has been called the “founding father of behavioural neuroscience.” (“I didn’t write that bio!” he says.) Kolb has worked with stroke patients and people with Alzheimer’s disease, and in the area of pre-natal neuroscience – the latter revealing how something as simple as tactile stimulation can alter the brain of a fetus.

Cause and effect also extends to cancer with the growing area of epigenetics, an old term that Kolb says is acquiring new meaning. “Epigenetics is essentially a study of the changes in gene expressions that don’t involve a change to your DNA. Through various experiences, you can turn certain genes on or off.” Recent research on cancer, for example, shows epigenetic changes in areas of the body that are far from treatment. “For instance, when we irradiated the liver,” says Kolb, “We saw changes in the brain, and then we noticed subsequent behavioural differences.” Researchers are studying how to use epigenetics to manipulate genes affected by cancer, just one area where there is so much more to learn about what goes on inside our heads.

But until they find out the secrets of harnessing the brain’s plasticity to train and retrain ourselves to promote new skills and prevent cognitive decline, what can we do to stay sharp? Here are five methods to promote mental fitness.

1. Try Brain Bootcamp
The adage “use it or lose it” doesn’t just apply to your muscles. Giving your body a workout can keep your brain fit. The hippocampus, responsible for your memory, makes fewer neurons as you age. “Exercise is the biggest thing you can do to grow these neurons,” Kolb explains. It’s also a way to beef up your brain: a Scottish study published in an October 2012 issue of Neurology, found that seniors who exercised had bigger brains than their less active peers.

University of Sydney neuroscientist Michael Valenzuela points to a particular exercise that decreases the risk of dementia: People who dance frequently are 70 per cent less likely to develop dementia than people who never hit the dance floor. “Dancing is not only incredibly good physical exercise,” Valenzuela wrote in a book for Australia’s Future Leaders think-tank, “but is also mentally quite challenging and great social stimulation.”

2. Get a Life
Give up television for a week. That advice comes from American psychologist Louis Cozolino of Pepperdine University, who wrote about the impact of social relationships on the brain’s neurochemistry in his book The Healthy Aging Brain. Most researchers agree that the more social connections you maintain, the healthier your brain will be. Cozolino has called this process “social adaption.”

In other words, keeping up with friends can boost cognitive functioning. Kolb agrees. “You’ve got to keep the frontal lobe active,” he says. “If you see six friends, you’ve got to recall conversations with each of them. That’s not happening if you’re sitting at home alone reading.”

3. Eat Food for Thought
Vitamins and minerals might have a more dramatic impact on our minds than you think. Kolb points to a study by the University of Calgary’s Bonnie Kaplan that found a more than 50 per cent decrease in symptoms of bipolar disorder when subjects took a broad-spectrum supplement of vitamins and minerals. Though research specifically about the aging brain is limited, a number of studies (including ones reported in Posit Science and the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease) indicate that a range of foods from berries and walnuts to oily fish such as salmon and sardines may help ward off cognitive decline. To that end, Baycrest, a health sciences centre that partners with the University of Toronto, recently published Mindfull, an e-cookbook by nutritionist Carol Greenwood with recipes from Canada’s top chefs. A taster: Roasted squash soup with roasted pumpkin seeds. See the Mindfull recipe.

4. Avoid the Pressure Cooker
Keeping your blood pressure low isn’t just good for your heart, it’s good for your head too. Hypertension can cause small bleeds in the brain, which have been found in people suffering from dementia, says Kolb. Reduced blood flow to the brain is also responsible for mild cognitive impairment resulting in memory difficulties and strokes. The advice: take your meds, even if you don’t notice a physical difference.

5. Play Brain Games
The idea that changing your mind can change your body is becoming mainstream as companies, such as Lumosity, offer computer programs that purport to help you counteract the cognitive effects of aging. Research is mixed. For example, a study in Nature found that people who practiced, say, brain training games got better at the games but those benefits didn’t translate to other cognitive skills. Kolb points to Posit Science’s cognitive training exercises, developed by neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, as one program that has shown positive clinical results. Posit exercises include tasks to improve your memory (such as practicing listening to a set of instructions and recalling it) and your visual processing speed (identifying the direction of a variety of visual patterns to stimulate neurons in your brain’s visual cortex). Turns out that, when it comes to staying mentally sharp, it’s all in your head.

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