Tuesday, March 2, 2010

New technique offers a more detailed view of brain activity

‘Cleverly designed' MRI sensors detect dopamine, offering a high-resolution look at what’s happening inside the brain.
For neuroscientists, one of the best ways to study brain activity is with a scanning technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which reveals blood flow in the brain.

However, although fMRI is a powerful tool for identifying brain regions that are active during a particular task, it offers only an indirect view of what’s happening. Measuring a more direct indicator of neural activity, such as concentrations of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals that carry messages between neurons) could be much more valuable.

Now, for the first time, MIT and Caltech researchers have come up with a new type of fMRI sensor that can do just that. The two sensors, described in the Feb. 28 online edition of Nature Biotechnology, detect dopamine — a neurotransmitter involved in learning, movement control and many other brain processes.

“This new tool connects molecular phenomena in the nervous system with whole-brain imaging techniques, allowing us to probe very precise processes and relate them to the overall function of the brain and of the organism,” says Alan Jasanoff, an associate professor of biological engineering at MIT and senior author of the paper.

Dopamine holds particular interest for neuroscientists because of its role in motivation, reward, addiction and several neurodegenerative conditions, including Parkinson’s disease. The new sensors could help scientists learn more about how dopamine acts in the brain and in other organs, says Andrew Alexander, co-director of the Brain Imaging Core at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

“Previously we really haven’t had specific biomarkers for looking at things like dopamine or other chemical neurotransmitters” with MRI, says Alexander.

Designing a new sensor

Conventional fMRI measures blood flow in the brain by tracking hemoglobin, the molecule that carries oxygen. Hemoglobin has an iron atom at its core that binds to oxygen. When bound to oxygen, hemoglobin’s magnetic properties change in a way that can be detected with MRI.

“fMRI is an extremely powerful technique for studying how the brain functions, and it’s the only way to obtain spatial information and information about when things are happening,” says Jasanoff, who also has appointments in the Departments of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Nuclear Science and Engineering, and in the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT.

However, the spatial and temporal information is imprecise. Researchers can detect increased activity in a certain area, but they can’t see what the activity is, nor can they get a high-resolution picture of which neurons are involved.

A more detailed picture of brain activity could emerge with MRI sensors specific to particular neurotransmitters. The MIT team designed sensors specifically for dopamine, but their technique could be used to create sensors for other neurotransmitters or even unrelated molecules of biological interest.

To build the new sensors, the MIT team worked with chemical engineers at Caltech, using an approach called “directed evolution.” They started with a protein called cytochrome P450, an enzyme found in most organisms that is paramagnetic (meaning it can become weakly magnetic when exposed to a magnetic field). Using a technique called error-prone PCR, which is a faulty version of the way cells naturally replicate their genes, they generated a large collection of different mutated forms of the gene.

Each mutated gene was placed into an E. coli bacterium, which produced the mutated protein. The researchers then tested each protein for its ability to bind dopamine. At the end of each round, they took the best candidate and mutated it again for a new round of improvement. At the end of five rounds, they had two sensors that would bind strongly to dopamine but not to other neurotransmitters.

“You want it to be specific to dopamine — you don’t want it to bind to dopamine and half a dozen other things,” says Jasanoff.

In studies of rats, the researchers showed that the sensor can effectively detect dopamine in the brain. However, in its current form, the dopamine probe must be injected into the brain, and the imaging is limited to the site of injection.

Bruce Jenkins, director of neurochemical imaging at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at MGH, says the new probe is “very cleverly designed,” but points out that an important challenge is yet to come: getting the molecule to cross the layer of cells that separates the brain from circulating blood. “Trying to get a charged protein across the blood-brain barrier is very tricky,” he says.

The MIT team hopes to overcome that obstacle by applying barrier disruption techniques used historically to deliver chemotherapeutic agents to the brain. They will also try to genetically program brain cells to express the sensor, so it doesn’t have to be injected.

They plan to adapt the directed evolution strategy to look for sensors for other neurotransmitters as well. If successful, that could help researchers in Jasanoff’s lab and elsewhere create a better wiring diagram of how different brain regions and neurotransmitters work together to yield behavior such as learning, memory, addiction and movement.

“We hope to develop probes that target different parts of the mechanism, allowing us to piece these systems together in a way that’s noninvasive,” says Jasanoff.

New fMRI Approach Pinpoints Early Brain Disease

University of Oxford researchers have been using a technique called Resting-state fMRI to detect similarities among people with a common brain condition. In a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the scientists had people undergo fMRI scanning while doing nothing at all. This provided a baseline reading which can be correlated with readings of others:
The group at FMRIB [Centre for Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging of the Brain], led by Dr Clare Mackay and Steve Smith, has already shown the value of the technique. Last year they found differences in young people’s brain activity using resting-state fMRI according to whether or not they had a gene variant that is linked to increased risk of Alzheimer’s. This difference in brain activity is decades before any symptoms of the disease would be apparent. Clare said at the time: ‘We have shown that brain activity is different in people with this version of the gene decades before any memory problems might develop. We’ve also shown that this form of fMRI, where people just lie in the scanner doing nothing, is sensitive enough to pick up these changes. These are exciting first steps towards a tantalising prospect: a simple test that will be able to distinguish who will go on to develop Alzheimer’s.’
As well as the potential clinical relevance of this form of brain scanning, the hope is that resting-state fMRI could connect differences in people’s brain activity with factors like age, sex, genes, behaviour, or disease progression.
Another great advantage of resting-state fMRI is that everyone will be conducting their experiments in the same way. This means that data can be combined from groups all over the world to map out the functioning networks in the brain - essentially giving the complete wiring diagram of the brain.
This is what the new paper by the international collaboration set out in PNAS this week. They show how it is possible to combine data from over 1000 volunteers collected at 35 different centres across the world (including Oxford). With all the data, they show they find the same patterns of networks functioning in the brain and are able to begin to see differences between different groups of people by age and by sex.
The PNAS paper compares this approach to genomics. Indeed, the maps produced of connections in the brain are being called the ‘connectome’ in the same way that the genome is the map of all our genes.
Steve Smith does see the analogy with genomics, suggesting that mapping out the connections which determine how our brains work is similar in concept to decoding our genes to discover how our body works. And there is also the similarity in approach - big international consortiums gathering data to pinpoint variation between people to gain more understanding about disease.

Primary Care Doctors Ordering Unnecessary Scans

Study suggests 1 in 4 such MRIs, CTs aren't appropriate
MONDAY, March 1 (HealthDay News) -- Too many primary care doctors are making inappropriate patients referrals for CT and MRI scans, according to a new study.
Researchers analyzed medical records from 459 elective outpatient CT and MRI examinations conducted at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. All the patients were referred by primary care physicians.
"Of the 459 reviewed, 74 percent were considered appropriate and 26 percent were considered inappropriate. Fifty-eight percent of the appropriate studies were positive and affected subsequent management, while only 24 percent of inappropriate studies were positive, affecting management," said lead author Dr. Robert L. Bree.
Inappropriate exams included brain CT for chronic headache, lumbar spine MRI for acute back pain, and knee or shoulder MRI in patients with osteoarthritis.
"Our study shows that CT and MRI examinations ordered in the outpatient primary care setting are frequently not appropriate based on the application of a national radiology benefit management company's evidence-based guidelines," Bree said.
"A high percentage of examinations not meeting appropriateness criteria and subsequently yielding negative results suggest a need for tools to help primary care physicians improve the quality of their imaging decision requests," he added.
The study appears in the March issue of the Journal of the American College of Radiology.
Bree said the findings are "important information for policy makers as they struggle with physicians and patients who are unhappy with restrictive utilization management programs and payers and the public who are looking for ways to decrease health care costs and increase quality and safety of exams in an era of higher awareness of effects of excess radiation. A reasonable compromise might be found in the newly emerging clinical decision support systems."

New MRI May Lead to Better Brain Pictures

MIT researchers say technology will yield more on circuitry and activity
MONDAY, March 1 (HealthDay News) -- Researchers are reporting that they've developed a new kind of MRI sensor that can detect the neurotransmitter known as dopamine, potentially allowing doctors to get better views inside the brain.
Currently, functional MRI analyzes brain activity by detecting blood flow. But it's not instantaneous, and scientists have tried to develop MRI sensors that can respond to chemicals and give a better picture of what's going on in the brain.
In a new study, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) say they've done that.
"We have designed an artificial molecular probe that changes its magnetic properties in response to the neurotransmitter dopamine," study senior author Alan Jasanoff, an associate professor of biological engineering, said in an MIT news release. "This new tool connects molecular phenomena in the nervous system with whole-brain imaging techniques, allowing us to probe very precise processes and relate them to the overall function of the brain and of the organism."
"With molecular fMRI, we can say something much more specific about the brain's activity and circuitry than we could using conventional blood-related fMRI," Jasanoff said.
Dopamine, considered crucial in a variety of brain functions, has been linked to addiction, anxiety and depression.

Brain exercise for future

exercise for futureBrain exercising and the small amendments in the regular activities are the mantra to stay sharp and active in future.
According to the editors of Prevention magazine, the Brainpower Game Plan sharpens the memory, which improves the Concentration, and age-proof the mind in Just 4 Weeks.
Some tips which are on the top of the list were exercising- which include walking running or any physical activity which keeps the body in motion, seeking challenges and a new method to push the intellectual limits every day should be like discovering new route for workplace or brushing with non-dominant hand etc, involvement in skills which demands to play against the clock i. e., games like Boggle or Set and at last socializing- a fast catching term which allows to connect with others in a meaningful way.
It is expected that if these tricks are implemented, they can boost ones mental stature. Part-time mums score high on nurturing healthy kids
An Australian study reveals a new perspective to the motherhood care which states that the part time working mothers nurture healthier children than their counterparts who are either homemakers or have a full-time job.
The research is based on the study, 'Do Working Mothers Raise Couch Potato Kids?' revealing the above findings. It was live interaction where face-to-face interviews with mothers were conducted and their child's height and weight at age's four to five, and again two years later, at six to seven years of age were measured.
The conclusion laid upon for the part time moms stated that these women reschedule their activities, sleeping less and allocate less time to personal care and leisure to ensure that time with children is properly utilized. They even permit fewer hours to watch TV and also low access to junk food and snacks, as compared to the women who work full time job but raised unhealthy children.
Although researchers are still in a quest to understand why stay-at-home mums have less healthy kids in spite of having more time to employ healthy conduct, and also, they insist on closer examination of household dynamics is required.

Marshall Melnychuk: Top 5 foods and supplements for your brain

Marshall Melnychuk/Healthy Observations

Part 2 – Supplements

When you stop to think about the part of your body that gives you the ability to think, you will find it quite amazing. Consider this 3 pound mass of flesh, made up of 100 billion brain cells, called neurons, each of which in turn contain thousands of dendrites, (tiny finger-like branches) that reach out towards other brain cells to pass along chemical messages which eventually, and with lightning speed, allow you to analyze and respond to the world around you. It is the only organ in the body that can analyze itself, or anything else.
Our awareness of ourselves and the world occurs in the brain. It is the filter, the funnel for all stimuli to enter and all where all thoughts, perceptions and actions begin. The experience of life resides in our brains. It is not a wonder that the fear of losing one’s memories and mental faculties is greater for most people than the fear of death.
In part one of this article we looked at five important foods to protect and enhance brain function. This week we look at the top five supplements. Supplements are way more fun than food. They hold such promise; the power of the most potent part of a food in a pill. Most supplements really are just food, in a very concentrated form. It’s like having a huge mixed salad with everything you could put in it and then just pulling out the croutons and condensing them down into a capsule. Amino acids are a good example. You take a whole protein such as soybeans and put them into a big pot with some special food-friendly chemicals and reduce it down to its component parts which are then packed together in a much higher concentration than you would find naturally in any food.
The entire spectrum of macro and micro nutrients are needed for good brain health so I am going to assume that everyone is taking a good quality multivitamin and antioxidant each and every day. That is my ‘goes-without-saying’ number one, so if you’re not doing that you won’t have a good foundation for the other supplements to build on. And, if you’re one of the few 1970-mindset holdovers that still believes you can get all the nutrients you need for optimal health from your food then you may want to stop reading here, the rest of this and many future articles will only make you mad.
1. EFA’s, especially Wild Salmon Oil
In part one of this article you will undoubtedly remember, since you were likely following the advice, that the number one food to eat for brain health is cold water fatty fish. So since you can’t realistically eat enough fish to optimize brain health, it is no surprise that you need to supplement with EFA’s or Essential Fatty Acids which are the concentrated oils from those fatty fish and other sources.
I talked with Dr. Don M McLeod, author of several books on antioxidants, hormones and an upcoming book on brain health and he took this to the next step and recommended Wild Pacific Salmon oil. It has been well studied like many sources of omega 3 oils and has the benefit of being low in mercury and other heavy metal toxins and local for us British Columbians so if you find a trusted source it will be fresh. Freshness is important because as with any fish oil the longer it sits after processing the greater the likelihood of it going rancid which not only eliminates the good health benefits but introduces nasty ones.
If in a liquid form, take one teaspoon, twice a day with your meals
2. Phosphatidylserine (PS)
PS is Dr McLeod’s number two recommendation as well and he knows much better than I do. Phosphatidylserine is predominant in brain cells especially in the membranes that are the skin of each neuron. PS is critical for neurotransmitter release and synaptic activity, which is how the brain communicates. Conditions of dementia are all associated with that synaptic communication. Clinical studies strongly suggest PS has the ability to improve brain functions such as mental concentration and memory which typically begin to decline with age. Studies show benefits with as little as 100 mg per day. Best taken with food.
3. Acetyl-L-Carnitine (ALCAR)
Studies involving Acetyl-L-Carnitine or ALCAR show promise in a lot of areas including brain health, athletic performance and weight loss. Acetyl-L-Carnitine is special because it not only protects cell tissue but has been shown to help to regenerate new nerve growth. The long held scientific view that the number of brain cells you are born with is all you get is changing. As it turns out the brain is somewhat ‘plastic’ and can remould and regenerate itself.
ALCAR is an amino acid (molecular shape of a protein) and for any protein to cross the blood-brain-barrier you need to ensure it doesn’t have much competition so ALCAR should be taken on an empty stomach on its own.
Take a minimum of 1000 mg on an empty stomach (at least ½ hour before other food or two hours after) and is best taken early in the day.
4. CoEnzyme Q10 (CoQ10)
CoQ 10 is an enzyme that is found in every cell in the body and aids in metabolizing nutrients, especially in the mitochondria of the cell which is where energy is produced. It acts as a powerful antioxidant and has been shown to significantly increase the potency of other antioxidants. Extensive research has been done on supplementing with CoEnzyme Q10 and how it affects the aging brain. Like ALCAR and ALA (below) it not only prevents brain cell deterioration but can improve brain function.
CoQ 10 is one of the more expensive supplements and the studies show that you need to take a minimum of 200 mg per day to get results but no negative effects have been seen with dosages ten times that amount. Unlike ALCAR, CoQ10 is best taken with food to aid in absorption.
5. Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA)
Alpha-lipoic acid is a unique antioxidant that is made by the body (we don’t get it in our food) and is found in every cell, where it helps turn glucose into energy. Alpha-lipoic acid can pass easily into the brain and it has protective effects on brain and nerve tissue.
Scientists are investigating it as a potential treatment for stroke and other brain disorders involving free radical damage. Animals treated with alpha-lipoic acid, for example, suffered less brain damage and had a four times greater survival rate after a stroke than animals who did not receive this supplement.
Supplementing with ALA has become popular due to the many studies showing promise in elevating age-related decline, that is, it will actually improve brain function as well as protect.
There are at least ten other supplements that are worthy of adding to this list but I’m sold on this top five. There is room for debate and I welcome any and all of it. I do not claim to be the world’s leading nutrition expert but years of reading, discussing and experimenting lead me to feel confident in sharing my thoughts. I do my best to pass on the truth as I see it; I could be wrong, let me know if you think so.
Consistent consumption of the five foods and supplements that will help to keep your mind healthy will go a long way to feeding high priority nutrients to the rest of your body as well. It takes the ‘healthy body, healthy mind’ idea and turns it around – healthy mind, healthy body. Part of maintaining a lifestyle that will serve the greater purpose. Which is, take care of your body, it’s all you truly own.

Marshall Melnychuk: The best 5 foods and supplements for your brain

Marshall Melnychuk/Healthy Observations
Part 1 – Foods

I’m not traumatized by the idea of getting old but what does scare me, and many others it seems, is the potential of losing my mental faculties as I age – my memories, my ability to problem solve or recognize people. Statistics show a rapidly climbing numbers of seniors (as well as people under 65) with some form of age-related dementia. If trends continue in the next 30 years the cost of dementia to Canadian society will exceed $100 billion, and over one and a quarter million Canadians will be affected.

If you pause to personalize those statistics and how becoming a number would affect your life it may motivate you enough to take action to prevent such a future. I believe prevention is the key.
On the flip side you may be looking to improve your mental powers in order to give yourself a competitive edge. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to recall all the details of an article you read two months ago, and to maintain the ability to focus on one problem for hours on end the way you used to in university? In either case volumes of scientific literature now suggests there are ways to delay or avoid the loss of cognitive function that may await you as you age, and even increase your current mental powers.
Top 5 or top 10 lists are always fun so here are my top five foods and supplements that have been scientifically linked to helping your brain (and mind) work the way it should. Part 1 is foods; to keep the editor happy I had to break it into 2, so next week is the supplement side.
First on the list Exercise! Ok, I know it is neither a food nor a supplement but the evidence is clear exercise not only protects your brain but can stimulate your brain to create new cells. A hormone called BDNF (Brain-derived neurotrophic factor) is increased by both aerobic and resistance exercise and it in turn stimulates other brain growth factors which build and protect brain cells – healthy body, healthy mind.
In a recent podcast interview with Dr. Alana Berg, Naturopathic physician she stressed the idea of first doing what you can to protect your brain. Brain tissue is much slower to regenerate than other tissues in the body so you have to protect what you’ve got.
Health protection doesn’t occur with once in a while behaviours. You have to be consistent, which means consuming the foods below if not daily, then at least several times per week.
  1. Fatty cold-water fish. Your brain is 60 percent fat so the next time your boss calls you a fat-head you should thank him and remind yourself to continue eating cold water fatty fish like herring, lake trout, mackerel, sardines and of course the favourite salmon – especially wild salmon. These fish are high in omega-3 fats which are precisely the fats that make up the majority of your brain. Omega-3 fats have been the focus of a great deal of study and the science is clear here that not only will these foods protect your brain, and other body tissue, but they are essential for brain cell regeneration.
    Dr. Berg does caution against eating too much of the ‘big’ fish due to the accumulation of heavy metals in the tissues of these fish. She suggests no more than two servings of the large fish per week, and topping it up with servings of the smaller fish or see #1 on the list of supplements
  2. Low GI Foods. Glycemic Index or GI is quite common now but really hit the tipping point in the public consciousness due to the Zone Diet book about a decade ago. Basically the index rates how quickly carbohydrates are turned into sugar in the blood.
    The brain has a love-hate relationship with sugar in that it needs a steady stream of sugar to function well, but too much not only leads to energy swings but creates nasty molecules that can destroy brain cells. In a citation in the January,  2007 issue of the journal Diabetes, a strong link was found between Type II Diabetes and dementia.
    High GI foods are destructive to all parts of the body so it is not surprising to find the connection to the brain. There is so much data regarding the negative effects of sugar that I had difficulty not putting it at number 1 on this list.
  3. Berries. All foods with high levels of antioxidants are good for the body, and berries, especially Vaccinium angustifolium, better known as low bush blueberries have some unique polyphenols not found in all other berries that do a particularly good job at protecting the brain from deterioration. A Google Scholar search on ‘blueberry and brain health’ returns over 9000 results on the topic dating back to the 1960s so there is no question of the research supporting the claims. It is difficult to find fresh blueberries year round so if you can’t get them try frozen or juice extract.
  4. Green Tea. Dr. Berg stated, “in general any good organic source of green tea, steeped for about 3 minutes will help”. Green tea contains EGCG, Epigallocatechin gallate (I don’t even try to pronounce it, just go with EGCG) which is an antioxidant found in many plants and in high amounts in green tea. This antioxidant has been shown to be a powerful protector of all cells in the body including brain cells where it not only protects from cellular damage but helps to remove toxins.
    The most hailed green tea is Matcha tea. Several studies on Matcha green tea have shown it to have many times the antioxidant content of any other green tea. To get the benefits you should be drinking two or more cups a day, most every day.
  5. Now for the good news, a tie for fifth – coffee and chocolate! There is definitely some controversy here but the science is clear that coffee really does enhance alertness, and unique antioxidants in dark chocolate (it has to be very pure dark chocolate) protect the brain as well as stimulating the ‘feel good’ brain hormones.
    Most commercial chocolate contains refined sugar so there is a give and take here. But a little pure dark chocolate (over 85%) will do the brain good.
Next week the supplement side of brain health which is more exciting because rather than just protect the brain, some supplements can help the brain rebuild and maybe even make you smarter. Until then eat well and take care of your body; it’s all you truly own.

Human brains grow, change and can heal themselves

By the time Scott Hayner of Highland Park was 7, he had had one skull fracture and three major concussions from falling off horses.
Nobody connected those accidents to the difficulties he had in school as he acted out, stopped talking for three months and cried daily for two years. As an adult, he seemed to be a thriving, successful stockbroker, until traumatic brain injury from a 1999 soccer accident led to seizures and sidelined his ability to talk to people and stay on task, it seemed, for good.Two realizations have turned his life around at 42. First, he realized that brain injuries were behind the troubles he had had all his life. And second, he read about brain plasticity – the concept that the brain can heal and learn at all ages.
"It was a relief," says Hayner, who credits his 2008 training at the University of Texas at Dallas' Center for BrainHealth for helping to restore abilities that he thought were long gone. "It helped me regain my self-esteem and self-confidence. It gave me hope."
Neuroplasticity, or the brain's ability to adapt and change through life, is gaining increased traction in medical circles.
Dr. Norman Doidge, author of the best-selling The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science (Penguin, $16), refers to neuroplasticity as "the most important change in our understanding of the brain in four hundred years."
"For the longest time our best and brightest neuroscientists thought of the brain as like a machine, with parts, each performing a single mental function in a single location," he wrote in an e-mail from the University of Toronto (he also teaches at Columbia University). "We thought its circuits were genetically hardwired, and formed, and finalized in childhood."
Scott Hayner sorts cards by color during a brain-fitness exam with clinician Molly Keebler at the Center for BrainHealth at UT Dallas.

This meant that doctors assumed they could do little to help those with mental limitations or brain damage, he says – because machines don't grow new parts. The new thinking changes that: "It means that many disorders that we thought can't be treated have to be revisited."
Dr. Jeremy Denning, a neurosurgeon on the Baylor Plano medical staff, has seen that in his own practice.
"The brain has the amazing ability to reorganize itself by forming new connections between brain cells," Denning says. "I have one patient I operated on a year ago who almost died from a hemispheric brain stroke and actually recovered from coma to hemiplegia [paralysis] to actually walking out of the hospital in four to five weeks. There are numerous studies looking at the changes that occur at the molecular level at the site of neuron connections. It is a very complex phenomenon, and we are still in the infancy of completely understanding it."

Lifelong adaptability
Dr. Sandra Chapman believes in lifelong plasticity. As founder of the Center for BrainHealth, she has set several studies in motion to explore how that concept can help those with brain damage and everyone else, including those with aging brains, middle-schoolers who need a brain boost and autistic children who need help rewiring the brain to improve their social cognition.
People such as Hayner have been able to benefit from some of these studies, although BrainHealth is primarily a research institute.
"Our brain is one of the most modifiable parts of our whole body," Chapman says.
That means that just as physical exercise keeps the body healthy, the right kind of learning will make it more likely for our brains to keep up with our ever-expanding life span, she notes.
Even while using the latest high-tech scanning devices to monitor results in her studies, when it comes to brain health Chapman puts her greatest emphasis on a brain fitness exam that she refers to as a "neck-up checkup." It's done one-on-one with an interviewer using puzzles, paper, pen, pencil and just a few computer questions.
A "brain physical" at the center costs $600. Based on the results, experts recommend a simple, individualized strategy usually focusing on three key areas:
Strategic attention: the skill to block out distractions and focus on what's important. Exercises might include taking stock of your environment, identifying what distracts you and eliminating or limiting those things, and creating daily priority lists.
Integrated reasoning: the ability to find the message or theme in what you are watching, reading or doing. Exercises might include making a point of reflecting on the meaning of a book after you've read it or a movie after you've seen it and writing down your interpretation.
Innovation: the vision to identify patterns and come up with new ideas, fresh perspectives and multiple solutions to problems. Exercises might include thinking of multiple solutions to problems as they come up, talking to other people to get a different perspective and taking time to step away from a problem to give yourself an opportunity for creative thoughts.
Hayner says his sessions – he attended for two months and completed take-home exercises – proved invaluable.
"I have been on so many drugs and medications, and they got me nowhere," he says. "Adults with TBIs [traumatic brain injuries] tend to become overwhelmed, and when someone becomes overwhelmed, it spirals into fear and chaos, and we have a tendency to shut down.
"Today as long as I stick to what I was taught here about filtering information and innovative thinking and what's important and what's not important and apply that to my real life, things don't confuse and baffle me ... I can make a decision on the important things that have to be done each day."
Although Chapman maintains it's never too late – or early – to learn, she does point out that some physiological changes in the brain come with age.
The frontal lobes, which control critical thinking, judgment, reasoning and problem-solving, accelerate from ages 16 to 25 and may begin to decline after age 30, particularly if efforts to keep the brain fit haven't been made.
Memory and processing abilities may slow as people get older, too, she says.
At the same time, the brain, like the body, can stay fit in core areas as the years go by, she maintains. It's possible that the connections that the brain makes may become even more profound with age:
"People in their 80s and 90s can do incredible things," Chapman says. "They may do them a little bit slower, but they can do them at a much deeper level."What to avoid
Things that can strain your brain:
•Sleep deprivation
•Some medications and sleep aids
•General anesthesia
•Failure to seek help if you notice difficulties such as loss of memory, inability to focus and make decisions, and a struggle to understand.

Neuroscientist steers research into neurological disorders

Scientists at the Queensland Brain Institute have uncovered a vital clue into how the brain is wired, which could eventually steer research into nervous system disorders such as Parkinson's disease and cognitive disorders including autism.

It's long been known that growing nerve fibres, also known as axons, must make connections in the brain for it to function properly.

“During the brain's development, billions of nerve cells send out nerve fibres which have to find the appropriate targets to form the right connections,” lead researcher Professor Geoffrey Goodhill explained.

“There's increasing evidence that defects in the genes coding for molecules that control neural wiring are correlated to a number of cognitive disorders, such as autism and Parkinson's disease.”

Professor Goodhill said that steering decisions for nerve fibres are made by structures at the tips of axons, known as growth cones, which can detect signals such as gradients of guidance cues in their environment.

There have long been questions about how the growth cones behave if the gradients are shallow, which makes the guidance signals weak.

“Previously it wasn't clear what was happening when the gradient was very shallow because often the axons didn't seem to turn. It wasn't clear what they were doing.

“We have now shown that they are in fact detecting the gradient, it's just they are not responding to that by turning – they are responding by changing their speed of growth,” Professor Goodhill said.

He described the discovery of this alternative form of growth cone steering as at the basic science level, but said it might eventually lead to a better understanding of nervous system development, and cognitive disorders such as autism.

“Wiring defects seem to underlie a lot of cognitive disorders and therefore we need to understand what the basic rules are. We need to know how these nerve fibres find their way to the right locations, and this new discovery is helping us do to that,” he said.

Vitamin B3 May Aid The Brain After Stroke

Vitamin B3 may aid the brain after strokeAn initial study conducted at the Henry Ford Hospital suggests that a common B vitamin may help improve neurological function after a stroke.
Researchers at the facility have recently found that when lab rats with ischemic stroke are given vitamin B3, or niacin, their brains experience new blood vessel and nerve cell growth, which significantly improves cognitive function. Additional research is currently being conducted to investigate the effects of an extended-release form of niacin on human stroke patients.
"If this proves to also work well in our human trials, we’ll then have the benefit of a low-cost, easily-tolerable treatment for one of the most neurologically devastating conditions," said Michael Chopp, scientific director of the Henry Ford Neuroscience Institute.
Niacin is currently recognized as the most effective natural supplement for increasing high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C), or "good" cholesterol. Separate studies have found that HDL-C is abnormally low in patients who have recently suffered a stroke.
The researchers also believe that the discovery may open another avenue of treatment for patients suffering from brain injury and impaired neurological function.

Brain Scientist Appears in PBS TV Series on Aging

Dr. Denise Park, the University Distinguished Chair in Behavioral and Brain Science, is one of the nation’s leading scholars on the aging brain.

Dr. Denise ParkDr. Denise Park, director of UT Dallas’ newly formed Center for Vital Longevity, is a featured expert in a new public television documentary series exploring aging issues for baby boomers.
Park’s research is aimed at understanding how the mind changes and adapts as individuals age. She is interested not only in evaluating brain function but also in figuring out whether stimulation can maintain the health of aging brains.
The public television series, About Life (Part 2), is hosted by Robert Lipsyte, an Emmy winner and former New York Times columnist. The episodes include roundtable discussions, on-location field pieces, one-on-one interviews and video essays. Producers provide viewers with insights regarding health, finances, care giving, careers and other issues they will face as they pass into their senior years.
Among the prominent guests interviewed for the series are television personalities Martha Stewart, Phil Donahue, David Hyde Pierce and Joy Behar, former tennis player Billie Jean King and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, along with some of the world’s most renowned scientists and clinicians.
Park, the University Distinguished Chair in Behavioral and Brain Science, is one of the nation’s leading scholars on the aging brain and has been interviewed for similar programs and articles in the past. Twin Cities Public Television, the program’s producer, flew Park to Minneapolis for the roundtable discussion.
“Understanding the way the brain works is really the new frontier in science,” Park said. “There are some exciting ideas out there. The show brought several of us together, each of the researchers contributed his or her own expertise, and we just had a free-ranging discussion of what we already know and what we expect to be figuring out in the years ahead.”
Park said each of the panelists had slightly different perspectives. “We were all in broad agreement, however, that there are ways to enhance and preserve the brain as we age,” she said.
Other guests on the Life (Part 2) episode also are well-respected neurological researchers:  psychiatrists Dr. Gary Small from UCLA, author of The Memory Bible; and Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy of Duke University, author of The Alzheimer’s Action Plan.
Park’s episode, “Brain Exercise,” is the 12th in the series. KERA is expected to air the episode in the Dallas-Fort Worth area this month. Interested viewers should consult their local listings to find the broadcast time.
Scientists and physicians point to the successful rehabilitation of stroke victims as evidence that many people who suffer major brain damage can reverse the decline of brain function with the right therapies. “There is clear evidence that the brain can reorganize its function with aging, and understanding how to decrease neural decline with age is one of the premier scientific problems we face as a society,” Park said.
The Center for Vital Longevity, within the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, has two primary research aims. Park and her colleagues want to develop a strong, scientific understanding of the fundamental neurocognitive changes that occur as a result of the aging process. Second, they are working to translate this understanding into research that promotes neurocognitive health throughout adulthood.
The center is spearheading several major brain studies. The work Park discussed during “Brain Exercise” is known as the Synapse Project, which is funded by a $2 million grant from the National Institute on Aging. The project is designed to test whether individuals can slow or reverse the normal aging process of the brain by actively engaging in stimulating leisure activities.
The study involves a group of seniors who spend 20-30 hours a week involved in novel activities that engage many different senses, ranging from learning quilting or digital photography, to spending time socializing and visiting museums with friends. The volunteers spend 15 hours a week or more for 12 weeks on their assigned activities. Some of those hours are spent at a community center Park set up at Casa Linda Shopping Plaza in East Dallas.
The researchers are trying to determine whether engaging in an activity that challenges the mind, causes it to develop new neural circuitry, providing some resistance to age-related declines in function. They are looking at memory and reasoning ability. The team also wants to find out if mental challenges are more beneficial than simply staying engaged socially and doing more routine everyday tasks.
“There are almost no systematic studies of the role of mental challenges and new learning in preserving function as humans age, although we do know that in animal trials, older animals have shown an ability to grown new neurons when they stay involved in activities,” Park said.
Park also praised the program’s producers for their effort to explore the complex subject of the aging brain in depth, presenting the ideas of leading scientists as well as interviewing prominent individuals who have aged successfully.

Scientists Unravel Mysteries of Intelligence

It’s not a particular brain region that makes someone smart or not smart.
Nor is it the strength and speed of the connections throughout the brain or such features as total brain volume.
Instead, new research shows, it’s the connections between very specific areas of the brain that determine intelligence and often, by extension, how well someone does in life.
“General intelligence actually relies on a specific network inside the brain, and this is the connections between the gray matter, or cell bodies, and the white matter, or connecting fibers between neurons,” said Jan Glascher, lead author of a paper appearing in this week’s issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “General intelligence relies on the connection between the frontal and the parietal [situated behind the frontal] parts of the brain.”
The results weren’t entirely unexpected, said Keith Young, vice chairman of research in psychiatry and behavioral science at Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine in Temple, but “it is confirmation of the idea that good communication between various parts of brain are very important for this generalized intelligence.”
General intelligence is an abstract notion developed in 1904 that has always been somewhat controversial.
“People noticed a long time ago that, in general, people who are good test-takers did well in a lot of different subjects,” explained Young. “If you’re good in mathematics, you’re also usually good in English. Researchers came up with this idea that this represented a kind of overall intelligence.”
“General intelligence is this notion that smart people tend to be smart across all different kinds of domains,” added Glascher, who is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of humanities and social sciences at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
Hoping to learn more, the authors located 241 patients who had some sort of brain lesion. They then diagrammed the location of their lesions and had them take IQ tests.
“We took patients who had damaged parts of their brain, tested them on intelligence to see where they were good and where they were bad, then we correlated those scores across all the patients with the location of the brain lesions,” Glascher explained. “That way, you can highlight the areas that are associated with reduced performance on these tests which, by the reverse inference, means these areas are really important for general intelligence.”
“These studies infer results based on the absence of brain tissue,” added Paul Sanberg, distinguished professor of neurosurgery and director of the University of South Florida Center for Aging and Brain Repair in Tampa. “It allows them to systemize and pinpoint areas important to intelligence.”
Young said the findings echo what’s come before. “The map they came up with was what we expected and involves areas of the cortex we thought would be involved — the parietal and frontal cortex. They’re important for language and mathematics,” he said.
In an earlier study, the same team of investigators found that this brain network was also important for working memory, “the ability to hold a certain number of items [in your mind],” Glascher said. “In the past, people have associated general intelligence very strongly with enhanced working memory capacity so there’s a close theoretical connection with that.”
SOURCES: Paul Sanberg, Ph.D., D.Sc., distinguished professor, neurosurgery, and director, University of South Florida Center for Aging and Brain Repair, Tampa; Keith Young, Ph.D., vice chairman, research in psychiatry and behavioral science, Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, Temple, and neuroimaging and genetics core leader, VA Center of Excellence for Research on Returning War Veterans, Central Texas Veterans Health Care System; Jan Glascher, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow, department of humanities and social sciences, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena; Feb. 22-26, 2010, Proceedings of the National Academies of Science

Of reverie and the wandering mind

Neuroscientists say new research provides a window into how the brain works and a new way to understand mental illness
Call them daydream believers. Brain-imaging experts from Canada and around the world have joined forces to investigate the architecture of an idle mind to learn more about mental illness and Alzheimer's disease.
They pooled brain scans from more than 1,400 healthy volunteers who were asked to sit in a magnetic resonance imager and do nothing in particular.
The results, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, offer the most detailed picture yet of the distinctive circuitry associated with daydreaming and a wandering mind.
That circuitry, called the default mode network, is far from frivolous. It is active for at least a third of our waking hours and burns through a lot of energy. It may keep the brain primed for action and help establish our sense of who we are.

Many neuroscientists say it provides an important window into how the brain works and a new way to understand mental illness, intelligence, unconscious problem solving, Alzheimer's and aging.
The network was remarkably similar in all the volunteers in the study, says the University of Western Ontario's Peter Williamson.
But there were differences between men and women, and in young people compared to older ones.
The next step, Dr. Williamson says, is to figure out what differences in the default network mean. Why do women have stronger connections in the network? Why do the connections weaken with age? Is the circuitry different in people who suffer from mental illness?
The default mode network got its name in 2001 after scientists conducting brain-imaging studies noticed a common pattern of high-energy activity when they asked people to take a break from the task they had been assigned, like memorizing a list of words. It is not dedicated exclusively to daydreaming, but it is associated with drifting thoughts.
Many of the parts are located in the cleft between the two hemispheres of the brain. In earlier work, Dr. Williamson and his colleagues found evidence that the network is different in people with schizophrenia, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder(See graphic).
But those studies involved relatively small numbers of patients. Pooling brain scans allows researchers to study a much larger sample of patients than any one centre can do on its own, Dr. Williamson says.
It is interesting to speculate about why women have stronger connections in the default mode network than men.
"I am sure that my wife would tell you that it suggests that females are more thoughtful than males, but it probably is just another illustration that male and female brains are different," he says.
Children also daydream. Brain-imaging studies involving babies (the scans were taken for medical reasons) suggest that newborns don't have a default mode network.
But by two weeks, a primitive and incomplete version is up and running. In the baby and early toddler years, more regions are connected to the network than in adults, but they get cut off as the brain matures.
It appears to change again in adolescence and then in middle and old age.
The latest research supports earlier findings that connections within the default network become weaker as we age.
The network also gets harder to suppress, says Cheryl Grady, a scientist at Baycrest's Rotman Research Institute in Toronto.
"Older adults have trouble turning off the stuff that goes in your head most of the time," she says.
It is a phenomenon that is exaggerated in patients with Alzheimer's disease, yet is a feature of healthy aging that kicks in between 40 and 60, Ms. Grady says.
It can pose problems in some situations, but it may also lead to broader or more creative thinking, and an ability to see connections between things.
"You may have a richer inner life," she says.
It is probably an understatement to say that we spend at least a third of our waking hours daydreaming, says the University of British Columbia's Kalina Christoff. That figure is based on experiments in which volunteers wore beepers. When they went off, they had to answer questions about what they were thinking and doing. People may have been reluctant to confess they weren't paying attention, she says.
Women are more likely than men to have problem-solving daydreams, studies suggest, but are less likely to have reveries of a sexual nature or in which they play a heroic role.
In surveys, "current concerns," like work or family, top the list of daydreaming hot topics. The exception is in males, age 17-29. They daydream more about sex.

Using books to unlock a brain with a mind of its own.

illustration by Okan Arabacioglu

Memory loss is like bad weather: You can complain, but there’s little you can do about it. Which is not to say people won’t try.
My wife’s father was a voracious reader, especially of detective stories and history. He had books by the hundreds stacked in his home. One day I noticed many were marked inside with the letter X.
They are “reminders,” my wife said.
“Of what?”
“That he had already read the book.”
I thought it a good strategy against a diminishing memory; nobody wants to travel the same road twice. But recently something happened that made me reconsider.
At a bookstore, I had picked up a novel called The Black Obelisk by Erich Maria Remarque, the German author of All Quiet on the Western Front, which was published in 1928. The plot of The Black Obelisk, which came out in 1956, unfolds in Germany following World War I. It has historical veracity, sharply differentiated characters, Nazis, and, believe it or not, humor. I loved it for the first sixty pages—at which point I realized that I had loved it before, forty-odd years ago.
I was enjoying it so much the second time that I kept going to the end. My pleasure came in different ways: At the first reading I wondered what would happen; the second time around I was full of anticipation for what I knew was coming. I had the sensation that I was walking a familiar path, one strewn with long-undisturbed memories of my own life around the time of that first reading.
It was in 1964; I was seated at a cafĂ© by a beach in Argentina, hearing Vaughn Monroe’s voice pour out of a scratchy loudspeaker, singing “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” A wild storm broke over the town of Miramar that night, where we were staying, my wife and I and our new daughter. I recalled hearing the waves crump like mortar shells on the beach.

Why, I asked myself, had I not retrieved these memories before? Why had I let them lie there, darkened by the decades that had fallen over them like soot? My mind, or the office within it responsible for organizing and filing memories, apparently decided to lock away those recollections for good. It took the late Herr Remarque to spring them. That these memories had nothing to do with the book itself suggests that anything buried deep in the brain, when dredged up, can have clinging to it things that have nothing to do with the object recovered.
Inspired by The Black Obelisk, I began to root through my library for books that had moved me in the past. First was Walter Kerr’s The Decline of Pleasure, recommended by my college teacher George Brenholtz. I kept it near, this work written by a wearied theater critic. Why? Because I thought he knew what was important to say, even though it was useless to say it: things like “poetry had no place” in a country in thrall to the philosophy of practical utilitarianism. Or “never eat cheap ice cream,” which is to say a loss of taste is a loss of happiness.  
Re-reading The Immense Journey, Loren Eiseley’s 1957 masterpiece about human origins (another Brenholtz suggestion), enlightened me as to how mankind is so inextricably linked to the natural world, even as he struggles to break that bond. I recalled not only the diamond sparkle of Eiseley’s writing, but also pleasant evenings with the family Brenholtz in their apartment near College Park. Another book brought to mind a major change in my life: It was 1956 when I decided to join the Army. The year before signing on, I read From Here to Eternity by James Jones, the 1952 novel about American soldiers in Hawaii before Pearl Harbor.
The prospect of a failing memory can be terrorizing, if only because it suggests that the inventory of all the things we know is being drawn down, as if from a bank account. I would not make light of it, but this faltering of memory is, after all, unavoidable and has ever been part of life. How does one deal with the unavoidable? Well, for one thing, put more cash in the account: Read more books, and talk about them. For the last five years, I’ve been a member book club that meets monthly in bars to discuss books that we choose in turn.
According to Robert Lynd, the optimistic Irish author of The Pleasures of Ignorance, there are other compensations. Contrary to the title, Lynd was no dunce and certainly not one to celebrate stupidity. Ignorance, though, is more complicated; it even offers certain opportunities. In this, he was calling attention to a truism: Everything we know is insignificant when compared with the immensity of what we do not know. Our ignorance, large as it is, is certainly not impenetrable. When we try to break free of it, by reading, inquiring, simply paying attention as our time passes by, we gain what he calls “the constant pleasure of discovery.”
Among the literary grandees known to have memory deficiencies, according to Lynd, was Michel de Montaigne, the patron of all essayists: “Montaigne tells us that he had so bad a memory that he could always read an old book as though he had never read it before.” (The experience my father-in-law deflected with his army of X’s.)
While confessing to a leaky mind himself, Lynd yet found his forgetfulness “not altogether miserable.”
And why not? 
Because, as he put it, “With a bad memory one can go on reading Plutarch and The Arabian Nights all one’s life.”