Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Latest health news: The lavender pill that can calm your nerves and an instant test for endometriosis

Calming influence: Lavender
Calming influence: Lavender

Taking a pill containing lavender can help reduce anxiety.
In an Austrian study, over 75 per cent of patients given the treatment showed improvement, compared with just half of those on a placebo treatment.
The patients slept better and for longer - their general mental and physical health also improved, said the reseachers, adding that the pill didn't cause 'any unwanted sedative' or other side-effects.
Previous research has shown the pill, Silexan, is as effective as the drug lorazepam, used to treat anxiety.
The theory is that lavender works by enhancing the effect of a brain chemical which reduces nerve cell activity, suppressing brain areas involved in anxiety.

Instant test for endometriosis

The first quick, non-invasive test for endometriosis could soon be available.
Researchers have discovered a protein found in high levels in women with the condition - in which cells that normally line the womb grow elsewhere in the body.
Every month these cells grow and then shed blood. The new discovery paves the way for a simple urine test for a condition that affects around two million women in the UK.
It is currently diagnosed - after an average eight-year delay - with surgery, which involves a general anaesthetic and inserting a camera into the womb

Rude health

Having sex at least twice a week boosts your levels of immunoglobulin A by 20 per cent. This antibody protects against colds and other infections, say U.S. researchers.

Addicted to love? Study links cocaine cravings and romantic rejection in brain

A new study may explain why it can be hard to control your feelings after being dumped.

A new study may explain why it can be hard to control your feelings after being dumped.Might as well face it - you actually could be addicted to love.
Researchers at Stony Brook University have discovered that similar parts of the brain are associated with both cocaine cravings and romantic rejection.
The study published in the July edition of the Journal of Neurophysiology sheds new light on why it can be hard to control your feelings and behaviors after being dumped - and why rejection sometimes leads to stalking, homicide, suicide and clinical depression.
"It shows that intense romantic love seems to function much like an addiction," Arthur Aron, professor of social and health psychology at Stony Brook University, said.
"Understanding the neural systems involved is extremely important both for advancing our basic knowledge of intense romantic love in general and of response to rejection in particular."
The researchers looked at the brain activity in 15 college-aged heterosexual men who had recently been ditched by their girlfriends.
They were all shown a picture of their former partner who they were still in love with and spent the majority of their waking hours thinking about.
The subjects were then asked to complete a math problem to distract them from their romantic thoughts, and subsequently looked at a picture of a neutral person they knew but did not have strong romantic feelings toward.
The results showed that some areas of the brain were stimulated much more when the men looked at the object of their unrequited love.
These areas were also triggered in cocaine addicts and are associated with physical pain and distress.
The good news is that as time passes, the level of brain activity decreased when the men looked at a photo of an old love

Doc calls costly therapy ‘robbery’

Clinics charging multiple sclerosis patients thousands of dollars for an unproven treatment are basically stealing, an internationally recognized stroke researcher and Robarts Research Institute scientist said Monday.
“That is robbery. . . . It is quackery because nobody knows yet if it works,” said Dr. David Spence, director of the Stroke Prevention and Atherosclerosis Research Centre in London.
News reports that Italian doctor Paolo Zamboni last year discovered a treatment for MS that involved unblocking veins have sparked intense interest from people with the disease.
Proponents say the procedure can reduce, and even eliminate, the damage from MS.
Clinics offering the controversial angioplasty procedure have sprung up in Mexico, India, Kuwait, Bulgaria and other countries.
In Canada, the procedure hasn’t been approved and patients have to pay the bills themselves, some as high as $20,000, if they opt for foreign treatment.
Several MS patients from London have said they will have the procedure after seeing media reports and watching YouTube videos showingpatients getting out of wheelchairs and walking up stairs.
“It is a procedure that should only be done experimentally for now because it is based on an unproven theory,” Spence said.
“For sure we would all love it to be true, it would be great to have a new treatment for multiple sclerosis, but there are a whole bunch of problems.”
One of the problems with the theory that multiple sclerosis is connected to blocked veins is that narrowed veins in the brain can cause strokes. But the part of the brain affected by strokes is not the same part affected by MS, Spence said.
In addition, many MS lesions are found in the spinal cord, not in the brain, so the narrowing of veins in the brain is not going to cause those lesions, he said.
“The theory is implausible because it doesn’t bear any relationship to what we already know about these things,” he said. “Everything we know about MS so far indicates it is an inflammatory condition.”
Spence likened the current rush of patients to seek the foreign treatment with laetrile, an extract from almonds that was touted as a cancer cure but was later discredited.
As for the testimonials from patients who reported dramatic improvements after the procedure, Spence said many people, including some doctors, don’t understand the placebo effect.
“It is very real, very powerful.”
Spence cited a study of the placebo effect at the University of Western Ontario in which medical students were given dummy pills and told they were being given a heart medication. Tests on the students recorded some had nausea, vomiting and high blood pressure. Some fainted, and some had low blood pressure.
“They recorded definite physical abnormalities from taking this placebo tablet because they had expectations it would have some affect on their cardiovascular system,” Spence said.
“You cannot study a new therapy without assigning a certain proportion of participants in a study to a control, a proper double-blinded control where the patient doesn’t know what treatment he or she is receiving and the person evaluating the response doesn’t know what treatment the patient is receiving,” Spence said.
Such a study should only take about a year, he said.

Children with brain injuries have problems with story-telling

Children with brain injuries have difficulty developing story-telling skills even though other language abilities, such as vocabulary, tend to catch up with other children as they mature, research at the University of Chicago shows.
"Our findings suggest that there may be limitations to the remarkable flexibility for language functions displayed by children with brain injuries," said Özlem Ece Demir, a researcher at the University of Chicago and lead author of a paper reporting the research. It is estimated that 1 in 4,000 infants has a brain injury known as pre- or perinatal brain lesions, mainly as a result of stroke, with risk factors involving both mothers and babies.
Demir is part of a University research team that has been studying children with brain lesions — areas of damaged tissue — to learn more about language development. Studying children with brain injuries gives researchers insights into theories of brain development, researchers said. For the study on story-telling, the team compared those children with children who have typical development.
Their findings are reported in "Narrative Skill in children with Early Unilaterail Brain Injury: A possible limit to Functional Plasticity" the paper, in the current issue of Developmental Science. Joining Demir were Chicago colleagues Susan Levine, the Stella M. Rowley Professor in Psychology, and Susan Goldin-Meadow, the Beardsley Ruml Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology.
The 11 children with brain injuries had a median age of six and included eight girls and three boys. The 20-member group of typically developing children included 11 girls and nine boys of approximately the same age as the children with brain injuries.
The children were asked to tell a story after given a situation that suggested a narrative, such as, "Once there was a little boy named Alan who had many different kinds of toys." They were prompted by questions such as "anything else?" until the children said they were done.
The stories were then analyzed for length, vocabulary diversity, syntactic complexity, overall structure and use of inference. The study found that the children with brain injuries produced shorter, less complex stories than typically developing children. Further testing showed that the children with brain injuries had similar vocabulary and sentence comprehension abilities to the typically developing children.
The ability to tell a story is a more complex activity than learning words and sentence structure, researchers said. Because that skill requires flexibility in using words, it may be more vulnerable to developmental delays than other aspects of language learning.
Because the children were just starting school, it is unclear if the difficulties in forming stories indicate a permanent condition or one that changes over time.
Other research has shown that parents can boost their children's story-telling skills by engaging them in conversations around narratives. The body of research may suggest that parents of children with brain injuries should pay extra attention to helping their children form narratives during their preschool years, researchers said.

Safety violations at N.Y. brain lab may have bigger fallout

Some research is suspended at a Columbia University center, but experts fear the case could deter people from participating in crucial brain-imaging studies.

The suspension of some research at a prominent Columbia University brain-imaging lab because of sloppy practices could have repercussions beyond that laboratory, potentially affecting brain-imaging studies nationwide and raising questions about the safety of participants, research experts said Saturday.
The Kreitchman PET Center in Manhattan, part of Columbia University, halted brain-imaging studies after federal authorities reportedly found safety violations that could endanger patients and invalidate research findings. The center has admitted to poor manufacturing processes of radioactive compounds injected in patients and to sub-par record-keeping.

Cutting calorie intake starves brain cancer

Believe it or not, but reducing calorie intake can starve brain cancer to death.
Laura Shelton and colleagues from Boston College report success with mice suffering from the most aggressive and invasive form of primary human brain cancer, known as glioblastoma multiforme.
Restricting calorific intake lowers blood glucose levels and reduces the carbohydrate energy available to the tumour cells, which rely heavily on glycolysis, reports the journal ASN NEURO.
Glycolysis is a metabolic process that breaks down carbohydrates and sugars through a series of reactions and releases energy for the body, according to a college release.
The researchers said their findings indicate that brain tumour cells are more sensitive to energy stress than normal brain cells and can be targeted through principles of metabolic control theory.

Playing music boosts kids' brain power

Kids' brain power, it turns out, is radically better boosted by learning to play music than just listening to it.

Kids' brain power, it turns out, is radically better boosted by learning to play music than just listening to it, according to a report published this week in the journal Nature Reviews Neuroscience.

Researchers at Northwestern University in Illinois find overwhelming evidence that musical training enhances the brain's adaptive abilities, priming the nervous system for improved language acquisition, speech, memory, attention span and vocal emotion.
In other words, unlike the transient "Mozart effect," which in the mid-90s had parents thinking symphonic CDs were a gateway to baby Einsteins, active engagement with music physically changes neuroplasticity.
"Even kids who've had 20 minutes a day of music lessons — which isn't a whole lot — will, after a year, demonstrate changes in how their nervous system responds to sound, be it music or speech," says lead author Nina Kraus, professor of neurobiology and physiology at Northwestern.
"But these benefits are specific to individuals who've actively engaged in musical training. It's like with anything else, you don't get something for nothing."
Kraus's conclusions are the result of her own extensive research, as well as a "deep and careful review" of auditory science from around the world.
It's been discovered, for example, that musicians' heightened awareness of changes in pitch makes them more adept than non-musicians at learning new languages. This enhanced "neural activation" has also been found to make musical children more sensitive to changes in speech, helping with phonologic spelling and vocabulary.
Most notably, however, Kraus says playing an instrument teaches the brain to enhance relevant sounds in complex processes — a skill especially helpful to those with learning disabilities that make them vulnerable to background noise.
"Musicians are always pulling out melody and harmony lines, and the sound of their own instrument," says Kraus, also director of Northwestern's Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory. "You can imagine how that would impact a child's ability to learn in a noisy classroom."
Musicologist Mary Ingraham calls the findings "extraordinary" and hopes they'll help change policy-makers' outlook on the arts, which in the U.S. and Canada are often among the first programs on the block when cuts come.
Ingraham suggests the most convincing argument in a "left brain, left brain, left brain" education system may be music's capacity to help kids cut through the informational clutter being thrown at them.
"It's about listening in the context of chaos," says Ingraham, associate professor of musicology at the University of Alberta. "Musicians have the ability to see both the forest and the trees, and maybe move more freely between the details and the big picture."
Although it's best to begin musical training during childhood, Kraus says it appears the physiological benefits can be experienced at any age.
Older people, for example, often assume their difficulty tuning into group conversations is due to peripheral hearing loss when, it fact, they may suffer from an auditory processing problem — something that music study could help resolve.

Irritable bowel syndrome associated with brain changes

Irritable bowel syndrome has been a tough disorder to understand. Studies have failed to show any structural problems in the gut that would account for the symptoms of pain, bloating, diarrhea and constipation. However, the disorder is real, affecting as many as 15% of Americans.
A new study has found a possible connection between IBS and the brain. Researchers at McGill University and UCLA used MRI scans to reveal changes in the brains of women with the disorder. The researchers took MRI scans of 55 IBS patients and 48 healthy women for comparison. The women with IBS tended to have different amounts of brain gray matter in certain areas; for example, decreases in gray matter in parts of the brain that govern attention and areas that suppress pain.

A link between the brain and chronic pain has been identified in other disorders, such as lower back pain, migraines, fibromyalgia and hip pain. The study on IBS suggests that, like these other conditions, the problem may be due to the brain's inability to inhibit the pain response.
"Discovering structural changes in the brain, whether they are primary or secondary to the gastrointestinal symptoms, demonstrates an 'organic' component to IBS and supports the concept of a brain-gut disorder," Emeran Mayer, a co-author of the study at UCLA, said in a news release. "Also, the findings remove the idea once and for all that IBS symptoms are not real and are 'only psychological.' The findings will give us more insight into better understanding IBS."

Brain scans could help you choose a career

Brain scans could help you choose a career (Thinkstock photos/Getty Images)
Researchers are questioning the possibility of brain scans guiding a person in his/her choice of career.

General aptitude tests and specific mental ability tests are important tools for vocational guidance. And if performance on such tests is based on differences in brain structure, maybe brain scans can reveal to a person his choice of work.

Richard Haier, from the University of California, USA, and his team compared brain networks identified using scores on broad cognitive ability tests to those identified by using specific cognitive tests to determine whether these relatively broad and narrow approaches yield similar results.

Using MRI, the researchers correlated gray matter with independent ability factors like general intelligence and reasoning.

They found that, in general, the grey matter correlates for the broad and narrow test types were different.

"A person’s pattern of cognitive strengths and weaknesses is related to their brain structure, so there is a possibility that brain scans could provide unique information that would be helpful for vocational choice. Our current results form a basis to investigate this further," said Haeir.

Can Ritalin help people overcome drug addiction?

The effects of methylphenidate -- a stimulant used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder -- are interesting. The drug clearly helps many people with ADHD with mental focus and concentration. And although many parents fear giving the medication to children diagnosed with ADHD because it is a drug (and drugs can be abused), studies show that those children and teens who benefit from the medication are less likely to abuse drugs. Kids with ADHD who are untreated are at higher risk for substance abuse issues.

Now a study has come along that ties the benefits of methylphenidate with treatment for substance abuse. The study found that giving Ritalin, a brand name for methylphenidate, to people with cocaine addiction seemed to help them with impulse control. Impulse control is, of course, a major reason why people succumb to substance abuse even when they know it's bad for them.

Researchers from Yale University gave 10 volunteers Ritalin and then used functional MRI to scan their brain activity while they engaged in a computer task that assessed impulse control. When the 10 subjects received Ritalin, they were better able to control their impulses than during a separate session, two days later, when they received a placebo instead of the medication. Functional MRI scans showed changes from Ritalin use in brain areas that reflect inhibitory control, particularly a region called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain seems to be crucial to "behavioral control during emotionally difficult situations," the authors wrote. And Ritalin appears to help normalize it.

'Spontaneous generation' of prions observed

Metal wires 'catalyse' appearance of rogue proteins from healthy brain tissue.

vCJDPrions are implicated in conditions such as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, where brain tissue is damaged, as shown here.Teresa Hammett/CDC
After an epic series of experiments, a group of researchers has observed and reproduced what could be the spontaneous generation of prions — rogue misfolded proteins that have been implicated in the destruction of the central nervous system.
These misfolded proteins, the culprits in Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease and scrapie, are highly infectious. Although famously transmitted by the ingestion of infected meats, prions are also thought to arise spontaneously in a tiny fraction of humans and other animals. Such de novo prion generation has previously been achieved with animal cells using a method called 'protein misfolding cyclic amplification' (PMCA), which involves repeated rounds of ultrasound and incubation.
Now, a London-based team reports observing prions appearing from healthy mouse brain tissue1. (Human samples have traditionally proved less amenable to PMCA, and the misfolding of prion proteins is believed to occur at a much lower rate in humans than in mice.)
"What we were doing was trying to develop a very sensitive assay for prion detection on a metal surface, so we could use that in prion decontamination," says co-author John Collinge, who heads up the Department of Neurodegenerative Disease at University College London.
"It took a while before we could convince ourselves this was a real phenomenon."

Sticky steel

Prions readily bind to steel wires, which can thus be used to detect the presence of prions, as well as to infect brains in laboratory studies. Collinge suggests that the metal surface in the team's experiments somehow catalysed the formation of prions.
While working on a mouse version of scrapie in Collinge's lab, the researchers found that some wires coated with uninfected mouse brain, intended to serve as controls, tested positive. Eventually, they concluded that this was not an error or a result of contamination.
In a typical experiment, they report, wires were placed with brain homogenate from either uninfected mouse brains or brains infected with scrapie prions. Out of 16 experiments, 9 had controls that were positive for prions. In total, 40 of 2,268 wells on test plates were positive.
The authors even went to the precaution of repeating the study in another laboratory that had never been used for prion work. They purchased new equipment and had it shipped directly to the site to avoid any risk of contamination. Despite this, healthy, uninfected brain cells still tested positive for prions at low rates.
"We can reproduce in a system in a lab what people believe is happening in animals and humans," says co-author Charles Weissmann, who is currently studying prion biology at Scripps Florida in Jupiter.
"In the beginning it was pretty hard to believe. We spent years repeating the experiment under more and more strenuous circumstances."
Crucially, when transferred to mice, the new prions caused disease with different characteristics from that produced by the scrapie prions normally used in the laboratory.
"Indeed, the histopathology associated with 'spontaneous prions' was unlike any seen previously in our laboratory," the paper notes. "The distinctive histopathological pattern elicited by the spontaneous prions excludes contamination with RML [Rocky Mountain Laboratory] or other mouse-adapted scrapie strains used by us as a cause for these mouse transmissions."

What's the alternative?

There is an alternative explanation to that of spontaneous generation.
Prions are believed to be a polymer of misfolded proteins. Collinge says that nascent 'seeds' of prions might be forming and being destroyed in brains all the time. The metal wire could have the effect of concentrating seeds, thus increasing the rate at which prions form.
"What will be important now will be distinguishing whether this low abundance does exist, or whether the process induces the spontaneous generation of prions," says Claudio Soto, an expert in neurodegenerative disorders at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston who was not involved in the work.
Soto's team pioneered the PMCA method — initially as a way of detecting prions, but later as a potential way of generating them. "It seems to me the possibility normal tissues have a low abundance of prions is quite feasible," Soto says.
Distinguishing between these two possibilities is the crucial next step. If pre-existing prions are being concentrated on the steel wires, the rate at which this happens should be directly proportional to the concentration of the brain material. More brain equals more seed prions. Conversely, genuine spontaneous generation would be a higher-order function of concentration, the authors note

Conversation Sparks Mirrored Brain Activity

Study Finds Similar Brain Activity in Speaker/Listener Pairs

July 26, 2010 -- Verbal communication is conveyed from speakers to listeners in a kind of mild melding brain process -- call it a meeting of the minds -- that facilitates understanding of what’s being said, a new study suggests.
Princeton University researchers using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) looked at brain activity in 12 native-English listeners, listening native-English speakers, and a native-Russian speaker in several experiments.
They found that brain activity in speaker/listener pairs was similar, and that the same regions “lit up” in the storyteller and the listeners. Put in terms of the researchers, neural coupling occurred, and that’s what underlies successful communicating, physicist and lead author Greg J. Stephens, PhD, of Princeton, tells WebMD.
The article says that the “similarity in the response patterns across all listeners underscores a strong tendency to process incoming verbal information in similar ways.”

The Study

The researchers performed the brain scans on a communicator and the listeners, first when a speaker told a long, unrehearsed story. Then the speaker told a new, unrehearsed 15-minute story about an experience that occurred years before. The same procedure was then used with a Russian speaker.
“If you speak in terms listeners don’t understand, there is very little neural coupling,” Stephens tells WebMD. “It extends only to low order auditory areas. They hear Russian but don’t do anything with it.”
When the speaking was in Russian, the results were starkly different -- brain regions that showed activity when listening to stories did not activate similarly in talkers and listeners, indicating that participants were not able to “extract the information” when dialogue was spoken in a foreign tongue, Stephens says.
He says the researchers conclude that “coupling” among people involved in a dialogue emerges only in a shared conversation, that is, when the same language is being spoken.
Also, in most brain regions of study participants, the activity in the listeners’ brains lagged activity in the speaker’s brain by one to three seconds, the authors write.

Neural Coupling

"It’s true that if you look, on average, across the brain, the listener’s activity is delayed relative to the speaker,” Stephens tells WebMD. “This makes sense. It takes time to process incoming information.”
However, he adds, “when you look more closely at the dynamic processes, there appear to be segregated regions that respond at the same time. Many respond in a delayed fashion and strikingly some respond in a predictive fashion.”
He says the study suggests that the stronger the neural coupling between people taking part in a conversation, the better the communication.
The study “also identifies a subset of brain regions in which the activity in the listener’s brain precedes the activity in the speaker’s brain,” the authors write. “The listener’s anticipatory responses were localized to areas known to be involved in predictions and value representation.”
The researchers say these anticipatory responses may provide listeners more time to process what they hear and more time to comprehend involves an element of prediction.
Stephens tells WebMD that “this works because the speaker’s brain is similar to the listener’s brain. We are using the same architecture. It makes sense that we use our own brain to predict what another person is saying.”
“For the most part, in neuroscience, neural systems and human brains are studied in isolation from each other,” Stephens tells WebMD. “What we’re showing, I think, is there is strong benefit to be gained when we relax the constraints. It matters a lot how we interact with others. We should look at this interaction closely and we’re likely to learn a lot.”
The study is published in the July 2010 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Surgeon removes rod from toddler's brain

CHAPEL HILL, N.C., July 26 (UPI) -- Doctors say a North Carolina toddler is a "little miracle" after surviving an unprecedented operation to remove a metal rod accidentally lodged in his brain.
A neurosurgeon at University of North Carolina Hospital, Chapel Hill, removed an L-shaped part from a pressure washer embedded in 17-month-old Jessiah Jackson's head, The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer reported Monday.
A little more than a week ago Jessiah was playing outside on a deck where his grandparents, who are his legal guardians, were remodeling to make a new play area when he climbed onto a chair next to a pressure washer.
The chair fell over, throwing Jessiah backward and piercing a hook on the pressure washer's hose crank through his skull, the Observer said.
"I look away for a split second, and he was standing up in that chair, and the chair was going back. I couldn't do anything," said Carlton Jones, Jessiah's uncle.
Both the child's aunt and uncle who were with him are certified nursing assistants and they kept him still until an ambulance arrived. But the local Wilmington hospital told the family the injury was too dangerous for them to treat, the newspaper said.
Jessiah was sedated and medically paralyzed to keep the rod from moving and potentially killing him. He then was airlifted to UNC where neurosurgeon Anand Germanwala performed the 2-hour operation to extract the rod.
Hours later, Jessiah was up and running around. The rod punctured the left occipital lobe responsible for vision on the right side and although there appears to be no damage, further tests are planned.
"We're calling him the miracle baby," Carlton Jones said.

PINs and passwords can strain the brain

A pox on passwords and PINs. Just thinking about how many of the secret log-in codes you need to navigate through life these days is enough to bring on brain cramp.
There's your debit card PIN. Your credit card PIN if you've got a newer card with an embedded security chip. Your log-in for your work email. Your log-in for your home email. The codes to retrieve voice mail at home and at work.
You need a password to buy songs or TV episodes from iTunes. Ditto if you are ordering a book from Amazon or buying concert tickets online. Want to stop delivery of your newspaper because you're going on vacation? Arranging vacation stops online is a snap -- if you can remember your password.
If you are a social media type, you need a password to get onto Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. If you book frequent flyer rewards online, you need one there too. Oh, and there's your password for online or telephone banking. The password to get into your office or to get from your underground garage to your apartment. The PIN for your home security alarm.
Modern life has become a plague of passwords and PINs. And they in turn are taxing our memories as we try to recall: Is this the one that requires a number and a combination of upper- and lowercase letters? Did I get creative with this one? Is this the one where I slapped a "2" onto my standard password? Or was it a "9"?
"Most of us probably have our stock password. But it doesn't work everywhere," says Dr. Gary Small, director of the Memory and Aging Research Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.
"So then you have your amended stock password and it may not work and then you can't remember: Is it your amended of your amended stock password? Or what was it?"
It's a serious mental challenge, what with the explosion of circumstances in which you need passwords, the importance of ensuring you don't use the same one every time, the varying demands for password creation used by different websites and the fact some PINS need to be changed every few months or so.
"It's a big problem," admits Small, who addresses these issues in his book "iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind."
"We're all struggling with it. And there are so many sites and so many passwords. In the old days it was just my combination lock at the gym. That's all I had to remember."
Ah, the good old days. Now nearly every convenience of the electronic age is hiding behind a password wall. And even healthy minds and memories can find it tough slogging to keep them all straight.
"I think it's a challenge for everyone," says Kelly Murphy, a neuropsychologist at Baycrest Geriatric Health Care System in Toronto.
"I think that (new) technology is going to be very helpful for some aspects of memory, although it won't help with everything. And I think these passwords are a really good example of that -- where you really do have to do some mental gymnastics in order to find a way of making the information meaningful or rehearsing the information, so that you can retrieve it when you need it."
"Because it's not something that lends itself to you looking it up. If you're at the cash trying to buy your sweater and you put your Visa card in there and it wants the number then you've got to know the number."
Experts say there are some basic tips for coming up with passwords that you can remember, and remembering passwords that are assigned to you -- though the latter is harder than the former.
"When a password is given to you, that's more difficult. When it's meaningful to you, it's a bit easier to come up with these strategies," says Nykema Wright, an occupational therapist with Toronto Rehab, a teaching hospital affiliated with the University of Toronto. Wright works with patients who've sustained brain injuries.
Murphy says a memory technique that's been shown to work is what's called "spaced repetition." Repeat your new credit card PIN a number of times. Then awhile later, try to remember it. Try again several times later in the day or the next few days. That process of retrieving it from your memory actually helps to embed it, she says.
Security experts might have their own ideas, but people who specialize in memory and the way the brain works suggest that if you can choose a password or a PIN, choose something that has meaning to you.
"What helps us with memory -- and that really gets to the crux of it -- what helps us remember things is when the information has meaning. And it has a context," says Small.
One tip he suggests is having a pass phrase as opposed to a password. A sentence like "My dog is a black Labrador" reduces down to a password of MdiabL. Not as obvious as the name of the actual pet, but still something you could remember.
A similar technique can work when you are assigned a password. Experts say if you personalize it -- figure out how it makes sense in the context of your life -- you are much less likely to forget it.
While keeping this all straight is hard on everyone, what about people with aging and injured brains? How do they navigate the perplexing world of passwords?
Small says though it's true people develop difficulties drawing from their memory as they age, aging brains actually have an advantage.
"We know that even though our memory retrieval may be slower, our frontal lobe capacity is better than a young brain. So we're better at seeing the big picture, complex reasoning," he explains.
"So we can create these more complex algorithms or systems to have a simple, secure password that is even changeable on a regular basis."
When asked about injured brains, Robin Green, a neuroscientist at Toronto Rehab, explains the study of people who cannot form new memories -- like Guy Pierce's character in the movie "Memento" -- has revealed the differences between two different memory systems, the explicit and the implicit.
The explicit system is what we use to remember what we ate for breakfast and other details of the life we're living. The implicit system stores habits and facts, such as the name of the capital of France -- and passwords.
Implicit memory is very resilient, Green says, and can remain intact even after a brain injury such as a stroke or head trauma. "Even after brain injury of different types, you might still be able to manage in this information age and with all your passwords."
Stress on the word "might." Green notes that programs like the one Wright works in help people with brain injuries use mnemonics (verbal or visual memory tricks) or technological tools like BlackBerrys to help them overcome memory deficits.
"But that doesn't mean you're good at it," Green says. "So for some people who have a mild brain injury and have had fabulous rehabilitation, they might do a better job of memorizing that weird password than you or I. But for most, it's going to be disproportionately harder.

The midlife brain surge that means we DO grow wiser as we get older

Getting better with age: Job-related studies found older people performed better than their younger colleagues
Getting better with age: Job-related studies found older people performed better than their younger colleagues

Ever traipsed to the shops only to find once there you've completely forgotten what you went for? Or struggled to remember the name of an old acquaintance?
For years we've accepted that a scatty brain is as much a part of ageing as wrinkles and grey hair. But now a new book suggests we've got it all wrong.
According to the Secret Life Of The Grown-up Brain, by science writer Barbara Strauch, when it comes to the important stuff, our brains actually get better with age.
In fact, she argues that a raft of new studies have found that our brain hits its peak between our 40s and 60s - much later than previously thought.
Furthermore, rather than losing many brain cells as we age, we retain them, and even generate new ones well into middle age. For years it's been assumed that the brain, much like the body, declines with age.
The accepted view is that we gradually lose brain cells - up to 30 per cent of our neurons - as we get older, hence the forgetfulness, lack of focus and mental slowness we associate with senescence.
But the longest, largest study into what happens to people as they age, the Seattle Longitudinal Study, suggests otherwise.
This continuing research has followed 6,000 people since 1956, testing them every seven years. It has found that, on average, participants performed better on cognitive tests in their late 40s and 50s than they had in their 20s.
Specifically, older people did better on tests of vocabulary, spatial orientation skills (imagining what an object would look like if it were rotated 180 degrees), verbal memory (how many words you can remember) and problem solving.
Where they fared less well was number ability (how quickly you can multiply, add, subtract and divide) and perceptual speed - how fast you can push a button when prompted.
However, with more complex tasks such as problem-solving and language, we are at our best at middle age and beyond. In short, researchers are now coming up with scientific proof of what we've all known for years - we do get wiser with age.
Meanwhile, job-related studies have found that middle-aged people out-perform younger ones.
In two trials, air traffic controllers and pilots were put simulators to see how they responded to demanding tasks and emergencies.
While the younger colleagues were a little bit faster in their reaction times, the experienced professionals did as well or better in actually doing the job at hand — keeping the planes apart.
So what is it about our older brain that is so good? Traditionally, neuroscientists thought that millions of our brain cells died as we aged.
Now, new studies show that while we can lose brain connections if they are unused, we keep most of our brain cells for as long as we live.
Furthermore, researchers have found that the amount of myelin increases well into middle age, boosting our brainpower.

Myelin is the fatty substance which insulates the brain’s cells (the neurons) and makes the signals between them move faster.
It used to be thought that all our myelin was laid down in our childhood and adolescence, but now we know it goes on much longer. American scientists scanned the brains of 70 men aged 19 to 76, and found that in two crucial areas, the amount of myelin peaked at the age of 50, and in some cases in people’s 60s.
The study found that the amount of myelin increased in the parts of the brain we use the most — the frontal lobes (which control emotion, risk-taking and decision-making) and the temporal lobes (responsible for language, music and mood).
The neuroscientist who led the trial said this increase in myelin can boost our brain’s ability by up to 3,000 per cent, and is ‘the brain biology behind becoming a wise middle-aged adult’.
Scientists have also found that as we age, we start to use both sides of our brains instead of just one — a skill called bilateralisation.
For example, studies in which volunteers learned pairs of words revealed that younger adults used only their right frontal lobes when recalling the two words, while older adults used both the left and right side.
Scientists compare this to lifting a chair with two hands rather than one.
Drawing on these extra brain reserves is why older people can get to the point of an argument faster than a 20-year-old, and why they can analyse situations more accurately and solve problems.
Last month, U.S. scientists also found that the decisions we make when we are older are much better.
Researchers looked at the brain scans of 3,000 Californians between 60 and 100 and found that older people were more rational and wise in their solutions to problems.
This is because their brains are less susceptible to surges of dopamine — a hormone that can lead to impulsive decisions in young people.
Speaking at an international conference in Edinburgh, Professor Dilip Jeste from the University of California said: ‘The elderly brain is less dopamine-dependent, making people less impulsive and controlled by emotion.
‘Older people are also less likely to respond thoughtlessly to negative emotional stimuli because their brains have slowed down compared to young people. This, in fact, is what we call wisdom.’
Other good news is that we keep our long-term memory with age. True, as we get older our short-term memory deteriorates. The problem is not that the information
has vanished, but that you have trouble retrieving it because we have so much other information stored in our brains — it’s like trying to finding the right book in a huge library.
However, our long-term memories survive. Research by the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York looked at the effect of ageing on the brains of rhesus monkeys.
In older monkeys, the brain lost half of message ‘receptors’ responsible for learning
new things, but nearly all those associated with long-term memory remained intact.
And even though we may have more responsibilities and stresses, neuroscientists are finding that we are happier with age. A recent U.S. study found older people were much better at controlling and balancing their emotions.
It is thought that when we’re younger we need to focus more on the negative aspects of life in order to learn about the possible dangers in the world, but as we get older we’ve learnt our lessons and are sub-consciously aware that we have less time left in life — and it therefore becomes more important for us to be happy.

Education is key to avoiding dementia

People who stay in school longer less prone to symptoms: study

People who stay in school longer are better equipped to compensate for the impact of dementia later in life and display fewer symptoms, a new study has found.

Researchers from England and Finland examined the brains of 872 people and found those with more education were just as likely to have physical signs of dementia in their brains after death.

But those with more years of schooling coped better with the deterioration and showed fewer behavioural signs.

“One message would be that formal education is a good thing to stay in as long as possible,” said study co-author Dr. Hannah Keage of the University of Cambridge.

“Our study shows education in early life appears to enable some people to cope with a lot of changes in their brain before showing dementia symptoms.”

The research, published in this week’s edition of the journal Brain, showed the risk of dementia decreased by 11 per cent for every additional year of education.

She and her colleagues used data from three major U.K. and Finnish longitudinal studies on aging.

While past studies have shown a correlation, the new research is important because it indicates education is not preventive, but rather it equips the brain to compensate for the physical deterioration that occurs with dementia.

Dementia is a serious loss of cognitive abilities including reasoning, memory, attention and thinking, of which Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form.

“This is yet another piece of evidence that you can have the pathology (disease) but not the dementia,” said Dr. Jack Diamond, scientific director of the Alzheimer Society of Canada.

He said the symptoms of Alzheimer’s occur when connections between nerve cells in the brain start breaking down. One theory is a more enriched environment, which includes education that trains and develops the brain, creates more connections and builds “cognitive reserves” for later in life.

How the brain compensates was beyond the scope of this study, but researchers suggested it could be related to better communication between the brain’s nerve cells as a result of more schooling, or better executive functioning or declarative memory.

The researchers said the new study has important implications for public health at a time when populations in many countries are aging.

“It’s important to know that education is not just a means to employment but for (long-term) health as well,” said Keage.