Sunday, October 2, 2011

How Exercise Can Strengthen the Brain

Can exercise make the brain more fit? That absorbing question inspired a new study at the University of South Carolina during which scientists assembled mice and assigned half to run for an hour a day on little treadmills, while the rest lounged in their cages without exercising.
Earlier studies have shown that exercise sparks neurogenesis, or the creation of entirely new brain cells. But the South Carolina scientists were not looking for new cells. They were looking inside existing ones to see if exercise was whipping those cells into shape, similar to the way that exercise strengthens muscle.
For centuries, people have known that exercise remodels muscles, rendering them more durable and fatigue-resistant. In part, that process involves an increase in the number of muscle mitochondria, the tiny organelles that float around a cell’s nucleus and act as biological powerhouses, helping to create the energy that fuels almost all cellular activity. The greater the mitochondrial density in a cell, the greater its vitality.
Past experiments have shown persuasively that exercise spurs the birth of new mitochondria in muscle cells and improves the vigor of the existing organelles. This upsurge in mitochondria, in turn, has been linked not only to improvements in exercise endurance but to increased longevity in animals and reduced risk for obesity, diabetes and heart disease in people. It is a very potent cellular reaction.
Brain cells are also fueled by mitochondria. But until now, no one has known if a similar response to exercise occurs in the brain.
Like muscles, many parts of the brain get a robust physiological workout during exercise. “The brain has to work hard to keep the muscles moving” and all of the bodily systems in sync, says J. Mark Davis, a professor of exercise science at the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina and senior author of the new mouse study, which was published last month in The Journal of Applied Physiology. Scans have shown that metabolic activity in many parts of the brain surges during workouts, but it was unknown whether those active brain cells were actually adapting and changing.
To see, the South Carolina scientists exercised their mice for eight weeks. The sedentary control animals were housed in the same laboratory as the runners to ensure that, except for the treadmill sessions, the two groups shared the same environment and routine.
At the end of the two months, the researchers had both groups complete a run to exhaustion on the treadmill. Not surprisingly, the running mice displayed much greater endurance than the loungers. They lasted on the treadmills for an average of 126 minutes, versus 74 minutes for the unexercised animals.
More interesting, though, was what was happening inside their brain cells. When the scientists examined tissue samples from different portions of the exercised animals’ brains, they found markers of upwelling mitochondrial development in all of the tissues. Some parts of their brains showed more activity than others, but in each of the samples, the brain cells held newborn mitochondria.
There was no comparable activity in brain cells from the sedentary mice.
This is the first report to show that, in mice at least, two months of exercise training “is sufficient stimulus to increase mitochondrial biogenesis,” Dr. Davis and his co-authors write in the study.
The finding is an important “piece in the puzzle implying that exercise can lead to mitochondrial biogenesis in tissues other than muscle,” says Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky, a professor of medicine at McMaster Children’s Hospital, who was not involved with this experiment but has conducted many exercise studies.
The mitochondrial proliferation in the animals’ brains has implications that are wide-ranging and heartening. “There is evidence” from other studies “that mitochondrial deficits in the brain may play a role in the development of neurodegenerative diseases,” including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, Dr. Davis says. Having a larger reservoir of mitochondria in your brain cells could provide some buffer against those conditions, he says.
Dr. Tarnopolsky agrees. “Epidemiological studies show that long-term runners have a lower risk of neurological disease,” he points out.
More immediately, Dr. Davis speculates, re-energized brain cells could behave like mitochondrial-drenched muscle cells, becoming more resistant to fatigue and, since bodily fatigue is partly mediated by signals from the brain, allowing you to withstand more exercise. In effect, exercising the body may train the brain to allow you to exercise more, amplifying the benefits.
Revitalized brain cells also, at least potentially, could reduce mental fatigue and sharpen your thinking “even when you’re not exercising,” Dr. Davis says.
Of course, this experiment was conducted with animals, and “mouse brains are not human brains,” Dr. Davis says. “But,” he continues, “since mitochondrial biogenesis has been shown to occur in human muscles, just as it does in animal muscles, it is a reasonable supposition that it occurs in human brains.”
Best of all, the effort required to round your brain cells into shape is not daunting. A 30-minute jog, Dr. Davis says, is probably a good human equivalent of the workout that the mice completed.

The burden of no proof

Because there is no objective way to measure chronic pain, people who suffer from it often struggle to convince others that their pain is real.
Kurt Gengenbach is a C4 quadriplegic that suffers from chronic pain. Gengenbach is photographed in his Toronto, Ont., home, July 27, 2011.

Kurt Gengenbach is a C4 quadriplegic that suffers from chronic pain. Gengenbach is photographed in his Toronto, Ont., home, July 27, 2011.

Three months after breaking the fourth cervical vertebra in his neck in a freak hockey accident at the age of 17, Kurt Gengenbach began experiencing a new and spectacular kind of torment.
He started feeling pain in his left pectoral muscle - a constant burning, pins-andneedles sensation that slowly spread to his right shoulder, across his chest, down into his abdomen and finally through his legs and into his feet.
Gengenbach is a quadriplegic. He cannot move his arms or his legs. But he can feel pain. His ankles feel as if they're bound in thick, bonecrushing casts. A Kleenex against his bare shoulder can feel like a blowtorch. The skin on his chest is so hypersensitive he can't breathe deeply to relax when the pain hits, the way his therapist told him to, because expanding his chest makes his skin stretch, and it's torture. "Basically I'm paralysed by pain," he says.
The tragic irony - that a body that can't even move is still racked by continuing pain - is compounded, Gengenbach says, by the fact that sometimes people don't believe him.
Some of his attendants know that just moving his arm or touching him can be painful. "Others think, 'It can't hurt him that much,' and they just kind of throw me around," the Toronto resident says. "They don't believe it."
Canadian researchers are trying to stamp out once and for all the skepticism faced by many who suffer severe, persistent pain. The revolution in research Canadians are helping to lead is aimed at showing just how real pain is.
Researchers are using hightech imaging to show the human brain in the act of processing pain.
They're discovering how unrelenting, day-in and dayout pain can change the brain's anatomy (pain shrinks the brain in some areas) and how those abnormal changes can be reversed with successful treatment. They're discovering just how often poorly treated pain after surgery morphs into chronic pain that can last for years.
In Quebec, 3,500 patients are being followed in what is believed to be the largest registry of chronic-pain patients in the world - a massive undertaking that could unlock answers to one of the most universal of all human experiences, including what factors predispose us to chronic pain, and what perpetuates it.
The goal across this research spectrum is to reduce suffering and banish the idea that pain that doesn't respond to treatment - or that seems wholly out of sync with any physical finding - isn't genuine.
"There is a huge social change that is happening," says Dr. Fernando Cervero, director of the Alan Edwards Centre for Research on Pain at McGill University, one of the world's leading pain research centres. "We are in a way leading, but also society is leading it. People are saying, 'Why do we have to live with pain?' "
Scientists have long been searching for an objective way to measure pain - using heart rate, blood pressure, temperature changes, muscle tension, and skin sweating. These physiological "markers" can work for short, sharp pain, but not chronic pain.
Now, researchers are taking the first steps toward developing a tool to detect pain based on patterns of human brain activity. The most recent experiments involve functional MRIs. Normal MRIs take pictures of the structure of the brain; fMRIs take a series of pictures showing what activity is going on.
In a study reported last month, Stanford University School of Medicine researchers put people inside the brain-scanning machines, applied a heat probe to their arms, then looked at the brain patterns with and without heat.
The brain patterns were recorded and interpreted by computer algorithms to create a model of what pain - in this case, mild pain in a carefully controlled lab setting - looks like.
The next step is to see whether the same method can be used to measure chronic pain.
"The issue of validation of pain is a critical one," said senior author Dr. Sean Mackey, chief of the division of pain management at Stanford.
"They don't feel like they've been believed, they feel as if their physicians and friends and families think the pain is not real. They're desperately looking for a way to prove to people that they do have pain."
Mackey said he would like to think this technology isn't needed, that doctors could and should be educated that pain is real, that it's a "neurophysiologic phenomenon" - that it is whatever the patient says it is.
In fact, chronic pain conditions are among the most devastating diseases known to man. For example, complex regional pain syndrome - nerve pain that can develop from trauma or surgery, and sometimes without any known trigger - can feel as though the finger ends are being ripped away from the bones.
Drugs used to treat chronic pain, when they work, provide some relief, but they're crude - they target not only pain receptors, but receptors throughout the body, meaning they affect virtually every bodily system, bringing sideeffects such as nausea, fatigue and memory loss. What's more, doctors aren't entirely sure what it is they should be targeting.
This much is known: Having pain that doesn't go away - pain so severe that it makes it impossible to work, to think, even to sleep - is to live in another world. Some people have quality-of-life scores that are equivalent to terminal cancer. "It's probably beyond your comprehension if you haven't experienced it," says Dr. Lori Montgomery, medical director of the Calgary Chronic Pain Centre.
In many cases, chronic pain is caused by a neural response to tissue damage. The nervous system is alive, and it can generate pain.
"Every level of the neuraxis, from the tips of the toes to the top of the brain, can be involved," says Dr. Mary Lynch, director of the Pain Management Unit at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax.
In addition, our genes as well as our past experiences, mood and emotions can influence how we feel pain and respond to treatment.
For generations, the prevailing theory on how pain works was straightforward: In response to injury or disease, special pain receptors or nerve fibres in the skin, muscle, joints and other tissues act like a shrill alarm. The alarm sends pain signals through the spinal cord up into a pain centre in the cerebral cortex, where we were thought to "feel" pain.
"The metaphor we use is ringing the bell," Montgomery says. Pull the cord and the bell rings. That was the old model. More recent research tells us that pain is much more complex than we ever imagined, she says.
"There are many nerve pathways, and many different mechanisms that decide whether that alarm signal will make it to the brain or not."
Pain is a survival mechanism. Humans need to feel acute pain - sudden bursts of pain from an injury - in order for the species to thrive. Acute pain tells the brain something is wrong.
Chronic pain doesn't serve the same survival function. It can occur when the alarm gets stuck, even after the fire is out. The nerves keep shooting pain signals up to the brain, as if the tissues were still being damaged. The bell is ringing for no apparent reason, Montgomery says, "or there may be a reason, but we don't understand what it is."
Not only do the pain signals spontaneously fire, they'll now respond to stimuli, says Lynch. Things that shouldn't be harmful - even a light touch - can cause excruciating pain.
"Many patients will say, 'I can't stand to be touched anymore. I can't take a shower - the water on my neck and shoulders is just too painful.' They can't tolerate the feeling of the sheets on their feet at night," says Lynch.
"These are classic descriptions that we hear every day in pain clinics across the country."
But what happens when there is no physical explanation, no "organic basis" to account for the pain?
"You can take a picture of somebody's spine and it looks absolutely normal and perfect, and yet they have horrible pain. So where is the pain?" asks renowned pain researcher Dr. Ronald Melzack, professor emeritus of psychology at McGill University.
"That's the pain we need to start concentrating on."
Pain, he says, used to get three pages in the medical textbooks. Pain was a sensation, he says, "it didn't mean suffering." Nearly 40 years ago, Melzack helped put a language to pain with the McGill Pain Questionnaire, a tool now used the world over to assess pain. It consists of 78 pain descriptors - words such as pounding, drilling, quivering, stabbing, shooting, exhausting, sickening, suffocating - to try to describe suffering. Each is rated on a five-point scale - the higher the pain score, the greater the pain.
But it was his "gate control" theory of pain that revolutionized pain science.
In 1965, Melzack and his colleague, MIT neuroscientist Patrick Wall, published a theory that challenged the idea that there was a one-way, skin-to-brain "pain pathway."
Instead, their gate-control theory argued that nerve cells in the spinal cord act like miniature gates that can block pain signals from getting through and up into the brain, or allow them in.
Melzack once explained it this way: "If you are playing hockey and get kicked in the shin, your gates are often closed because your brain isn't interested in pain at that time." (Kurt Gengenbach once skated an entire game on a broken ankle. He didn't realize the bone was broken until he took his skate off.)
"On the other hand, " Melzack said, "if you have a slight stomach ache and you learn that a friend has just died of stomach cancer, suddenly the gates are opened, and you may have terrible abdominal pain."
Melzack has expanded his hypothesis since. He says humans are born with genetically determined neural networks, which are pain-processing programs in our brains that can be influenced by mood, emotions, memories and other sensory experiences.
This "neuromatrix" can be activated by an injury or illness, he says. But it can also go off spontaneously.
Amputees frequently report stabbing, burning searing pain in their phantom limbs. "How do you account for that?" Melzack says. "The only way you can is that the leg we feel is in our brain."
Experts say that how we think about pain can affect how we feel pain and, for some, the urge is to "catastrophize" the pain - "this pain will never go away, I will never be able to handle this."
Catastrophizing can stop people from taking action, says Michael Negraeff, a clinical associate professor in the department anesthesia at the University of British Columbia and chair of Pain BC. It also increases the amount of pain people report.
"You have to absolutely validate that they are having pain and that all pain is real," he says. "Only then can you begin to work on helping them see what is not helping them."
Attention can also have a significant impact on pain and pain processing, says Dr. Catherine Bushnell, professor of anesthesia at McGill University in Montreal and president of the Canadian Pain Society.
In studies of healthy volunteers who were subjected to experimental pain - heat not hot enough to cause a blister but hot enough to activate the person's pain system - Bushnell's team has found that people rate their pain higher when they're focusing on it. "When you're distracted, you feel less pain."
Emotions modulate pain differently, she says. When people experience positive emotions, "they still feel pain, they still rate it with the same intensity, but it bothers them less, it's less unpleasant," says Bushnell. "These are ways that you can engage in and work on your own therapy."
Some worry the new focus on the mind could make science slip back into seeing pain as purely psychological. Distraction works in a lab where a bit of pain is inflicted for a short time, and in real life when the pain is light, says Lous Heshusius, author of Inside Chronic Pain: An Intimate and Critical Account. But when pain is intense, distraction can make it worse, she says.
"That's why we often withdraw when severe pain strikes," she says. What people living with severe pain need is real purpose, she says. "Something that is still worthwhile living for."
For 12 years, Kurt Gengenbach watched helplessly as pain took over his body, as more and more parts started hurting.
Gengenbach, now 40, was paralysed during a senior high school hockey game, when he went in for a hit, lost the edge of his skate and slammed headfirst into the boards.
Today he suffers from neuropathic pain. With a spinal cord injury, sensory nerves at the level of the injury are also damaged, causing changes in their electrical signalling. Some of those damaged nerves get stuck in the "on" setting, so the pain signals keep firing.
Gengenbach has been living with pain for 22 years. "You don't get used to it, you just learn to deal with it," he says. The most difficult thing, he says, is frustration with people not understanding the pain.
He has a medicinal marijuana licence because marijuana helps control his pain by controlling muscle spasms. Yet some of his attendants refuse to hold his pipe for him, saying they have a right to work in a smoke-free environment. Gengenbach has disposable surgical masks that would cover their face entirely. He takes only one puff at a time from a small bowl pipe. The amount of smoke, he says, is minuscule.
At night, he sometimes lies awake in agony. He can see his pipe next to his bed when he turns his head, but he can't reach out and grab it. It's right there, right beside him. "I can see it. But I can't get it."
"I sometimes beg for the ability to make someone feel my pain for five or 10 seconds," he says. "I feel bad for saying that. . It's very hard for people to understand.
"My pain dictates my life much more than my disability ever has."
Yesterday: Roughly six million Canadians live with chronic pain, yet despite the burden of suffering, pain is poorly treated in Canada, if it's treated at all.
Today: Canadian researchers are trying to stamp out once and for all the skepticism faced by many who suffer severe, persistent pain.
Tomorrow: Opioids have been shown to be effective for serious, intractable pain, but fears about addiction and abuse means people in pain continue to suffer.
Tuesday: Studies suggest intense and frequent pain affects about five to eight per cent of children and adolescents, but it too goes under-recognized and undertreated.
Watch a video of Maggie Bristow, who has fibromyalgia and spinal stenosis. The conditions that have left the former administrative assistant from Ottawa in so much pain there are days she questions whether she wants to go on.
Watch an interview with of Dr. Manon Choinière of the Quebec Pain Registry, which is following 3,500 chronicpain patients. The massive undertaking could unlock answers to what factors predispose us to chronic pain, and what perpetuates it.
Watch a video interview with Dr. Mark Ware, the director of clinical research at the Alan Edwards Pain Management Unit at the Montreal General Hospital.
Award-winning Postmedia journalist Sharon Kirkey has covered health for nearly 20 years. She spent three months talking to experts and people with chronic pain across the country to shed light on a condition that affects roughly six million Canadians, who are often left to suffer in silence.

Two minds make us all muddled thinkers

Conventional economics got set in its ways long before neuroscientists discovered something that helps explain why the decisions consumers and business people make are often far from rational: our brains have two different, and sometimes competing, systems for deciding things.
Psychologists call it system one and system two thinking. System one is our intuitive system of processing information. It's fast, automatic, effortless, implicit and emotional. It's controlled by the earlier, more primitive part of our brain. It's highly efficient and is thus the most appropriate tool for the majority of mundane decisions we make every day.
By contrast, system two thinking is slower, conscious, effortful, explicit and more logical. It's controlled by the more recent, frontal part of our brain. When we weigh the costs and benefits of alternative courses of action in a systematic and organised manner, we're engaged in system two thinking.
In the hands of scholars who study behavioural ethics - such as Max Bazerman and Ann Tenbrunsel, the authors of Blind Spots - system one is seen as our ''want-self'' and system two as our ''should-self''. Almost all of us regard ourselves as ethical. Before decisions arise our should-selves think ''I should behave ethically, therefore I will''.
When we're looking back on decisions, our should-selves think: ''I should have behaved ethically, therefore I did.'' Trouble is, when the decision is actually being made, our want-selves take over and we often do things that ignore the ethical implications of our actions.
The task for behavioural ethicists, therefore, is to help us find strategies that allow our should-selves to dominate our want-selves. In another context, psychologists say we have different systems for wanting things and liking things. So some of the stuff we really want, and spend a lot of time pursuing, doesn't give us as much satisfaction as we thought it would once we've got it.
This explains why children will spend weeks nagging parents to buy them a guitar or a pet but quickly lose interest once they have it.
It also explains a lot of futile adult behaviour. I suspect our two thinking systems explain the paradox of advertising. I'm not influenced by all the advertising I see, but a lot of people are. Do you think that, too? Trouble is, most people think it.
If it's true, just who are the dummies that fall for advertising? And how come so many businesses spend millions on advertising, convinced it's money well spent?
I think all of us are more susceptible to advertising than we realise. Most advertising is designed to appeal to our emotions and instincts, not our intellect. In other words, it's aimed at our unconscious, system one decision-maker and we're not conscious of the way it affects the choices we make. Meanwhile, our conscious, reasoning system two brain is unimpressed by the illogical connections we see in ads.
I'm sure they're not all Robinson Crusoe, but economists often show signs of having two-track minds. They believe certain things intellectually, but these beliefs don't seem to have the effect on their behaviour that you'd expect.
For instance, when you criticise their model for its absurd assumption that people are always rational - carefully calculating and self-interested - they'll tell you they don't actually believe people are rational; that's just a convenient assumption needed to get the model going.
But then they'll argue vigorously for propositions that come from the model, oblivious to the way those propositions rest on the assumption that people are indeed rational in all they decide.
Or, take the exaltation of gross domestic product. When you argue that GDP is a poor measure of national well-being and point out its various limitations, economists will agree. But that won't stop them continuing to treat GDP is though it's the one thing that matters.
One of the most ubiquitous problems in daily life - and thus in the economy - is one the economists' model assumes away: achieving self-control. We need to control our natural urges to eat too much, to smoke, to drink too much, to gamble too much, spend too much, watch too much television, get too little exercise and even to work too much.
Here, again, we seem to have two selves at work: an unconscious self that's emotional and shortsighted and a conscious self that's reasoning and farsighted. We have trouble controlling ourselves in circumstances where the benefits are immediate and certain, whereas the costs are longer-term and uncertain.
When you come home tired from work, for instance, the benefits of slumping in front of the telly are immediate, whereas the costs - feeling tired the next day; looking back on your life and realising you could have done a lot better if you'd got off your backside and played a bit of sport, sought a further qualification at tech, studied harder for exams, spent more time talking to your children, etc - are not so clear-cut.
Similarly, the reward from eating food is instant whereas the costs of overeating are uncertain and far off: being regarded as physically unattractive, becoming obese, becoming a diabetic, dying younger, etc.
As everyone who has tried to diet, give up smoking, control their drinking, save or get on top of their credit card debt knows, it's hard to achieve the self-control our conscious, future-selves want us to achieve.
People have developed many strategies to help their future-selves gain control over their immediate-selves, including pre-commitment devices - similar to those proposed by the Productivity Commission to assist problem gamblers.
Economics will become a more useful discipline when its practitioners catch up with developments in neuroscience and offer us solutions to common behaviour problems it now assumes away.

Conference changed mindset on brain development

Have you ever held a newborn in your arms and thought, "What a nice blob?" Have you bounced a 4-month-old on your knee and thought, "Geez, being a baby must be so boring!" Maybe you've rolled a ball back and forth to a 9-month-old and thought, "I bet my dog is smarter than this baby at playing ball!" Perhaps you've heard a 1-year-old speak their first word and thought, "It took you long enough!"In our modern society, the incredible abilities of babies are sometimes considered commonplace, or even yesterday's news. We live in a surround-sound world, including babies. Marketing products to optimize the intelligence of your baby has been an advertiser's dream and sometimes a parent's nightmare.
Encouragement to buy the latest toy to strengthen your baby's brain potential has been maximized by advertising with adorable babies while pacifying parental guilt. In short, buy the right stuff and you give your baby the right start.
With the explosion of early childhood research in the last 25 years, we've come a long way from thinking of babies as "a blank slate." Even renowned pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton comments on our not-too-distant past when we referred to babies in the hospital nursery as "lumps of clay." Brazelton says, "All of the greats in our past history said that they didn't think babies were people until 3 or 4 months of age and had been shaped by the environment… (he pauses)… Where did we get such a stupid idea?"
Indeed. Thirty years ago, I was sitting in a college class on child development, being amazed that a newborn will turn its head to its mother's voice or may soothe more readily to the lower pitch of a male voice. Twenty-five years ago, our first child was born just as the movement for birthing rooms in hospitals was taking hold, environments that took into account optimizing the needs of the laboring mother as well as family, siblings and the newborn. Twenty years ago, Professor Heidelise Als of Harvard Medical School was breaking down walls of traditional medical models to humanize — and strengthen -— the care of premature babies in neonatal intensive care units. Nearly 15 years ago, Newsweek Magazine released its special edition,
"Your Child: Birth to Three" following the 1997 White House Conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning. In her opening conference remarks, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote, "It is astonishing what we now know about the young brain and about how children develop. Fifteen years ago, we thought that a baby's brain structure was virtually complete at birth. Now, we understand that it is a work in progress, and that everything we do with a child has some kind of potential physical influence on that rapidly-forming brain."
On the night of the White House Conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning, I was pregnant with my third child. Sitting at a large dinner gathering to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Wimpfheimer, Vassar's laboratory nursery school, I had no idea how much my mindset was about to change forever.
I looked out the window toward the building where I had my first child development class. It was April 17 — and snowing in Poughkeepsie. Our keynote speaker for the anniversary dinner, Ellen Galinsky, was delayed by blowing snow on the Taconic as she traveled from DC. As President of Families and Work Institute, Ellen had introduced the release of the Institute's landmark publication, "Rethinking the Brain," at the White House Conference that morning. That night at Vassar, her keynote address forever changed my scholarly thinking as a developmental psychologist, my professional thinking as a director of an early childhood school, and my personal thinking as a mother.
What has changed in your professional and personal lives in the last 15 years? Computers, email, cell phones, texting, skyping, international webinars … the list goes on. It is not an accident that these technological advances in a digital world that have changed our lives also forever changed our understanding of human development and learning.
Yet in our eagerness and even anxiety to ramp it up to "keep up," I believe we've sometimes sent an unintentional message: more is always better. In my next few columns, I will focus on various aspects of the cutting edge of science and child development research through my work with Ellen Galinsky and Mind in the Making. I will also ponder some tough questions and cautionary tales. I hope you will join me in this adventure of a lifetime!

EyePhone: Train your brain to do away with reading glasses

Far from making your sight worse, it seems that time spent staring at a computer or iPhone screen could soon improve vision. A brain-training app that gives middle-aged people the eyesight of those ten years younger will be available to download within months, developers say.
They claim it can dramatically reduce the need for reading glasses in those who already wear them, as well as put off the day on which others need to invest in a pair. Trials of the Glasses Off software have produced startling results, with people able to read more than two lines further down an eye chart after training.
Easy Read: The GlassessOff app improves vision by training the brain to overcome ageing eyesight
In addition, the time taken to read the page of a newspaper more than halved, New Scientist journal reports. Glasses Off is expected to be launched early next year, initially as a smart phone app. A version for home computers could follow. It is said to combat presbyopia, or age-related long-sightedness. By 50, most adults are unable to read a menu, book or newspaper without holding it at arm's length.
The deterioration results from the stiffening of the eye's lens, which makes zooming in on close objects more difficult.
This means the brain receives blurred information which it then struggles to process. Glasses Off, developed by U.S. firm Ucansi, encourages the brain to make sense of this. People are first shown a grey screen containing a white circle, and then a number of images in quick succession at various places on the screen.
Some are blank, while others contain blurred patterns of lines, known as Gabor patches. The aim is to pick out any of the Gabor patches that fall in the same place as the white circle. The task gets faster and more difficult as the person gets better at it.
Volunteers with an average age of 51 who took part in 40 training sessions at the University of California, Berkley, found reading charts so much easier that their 'eye age' was said to have reduced from 50.5 to 41.9 years. They were also four seconds a sentence quicker at reading, a San Francisco conference heard.
Ucansi co-founder Uri Polat, of Tel Aviv University, said: 'We're using the brain as glasses. Every single change is in the brain.' The software is unlikely to do away with reading glasses. It may, however, reduce the amount of time people need to wear them.
The Glasses Off app is expected to cost around £60 for the first three months, during which customers are expected to train for 15 minutes, three times a week. After that, there will be a small monthly fee for less intensive 'maintenance' training.
Britons spend £2.7billion a year on optical products such as lenses and glasses.

Chew on this instead

Everyone's different ... weight loss is a personal thing.

Rather than relying on 'one size fits all' diets, writes Rachel Browne, many overweight Australians need to simply ask themselves: why?
It is the most important tool in weight loss and often the most overlooked. No, it's not a high-tech exercise machine or a set of digital scales. It's the human brain.
Almost two-thirds of the Australian population is overweight, so there is no doubt healthier eating is a concern for many.
We can hardly be accused of ignoring the issue; Australians spend about $750 million a year on weight-loss programs as well as surgical procedures such as lap banding and liposuction.

But experts believe this is money down the drain if we don't examine the reasons we become overweight in the first place. And on this point, they say we're better off exercising our self-awareness than sweating it out in the gym.
American neuroscientist Daniel Amen believes personality type is a key driver of obesity, something he examines in his book, The Amen Solution: The Brain Healthy Way to Lose Weight and Keep it Off.
He argues people with certain personality types (see box, right) are prone to overeating but can harness their traits to help them shed the kilos as well.
''The brain controls everything we do, including how we think, feel, behave and eat,'' he tells S.Well. ''To understand obesity, it is critical to understand the brain.''
He has identified five types of overeaters: impulsive, compulsive, impulsive-compulsive, sad and anxious.
Amen's research shows each group must avoid certain foods - and eat more of others - in order to lose weight.
He says conventional diets fail these people because they take a one-size-fits-all approach, rather than looking at why the person consumes food the way they do.
''Many diets actually make them worse,'' he says.
One of his patients, Steve, weighed close to 275 kilograms. The 40-year-old had been addicted to alcohol and cigarettes for 25 years, suffered from depression and had weight-related health problems.
He tried unsuccessfully to lose weight and was considering suicide but he was too big to get up the stairs of his house to find his gun. After consulting Dr Amen he lost 172 kilograms over 18 months by eating to suit his personality type.
''Not only does Steve look and feel dramatically younger but his brain is younger as well,'' Amen says.
''He has better focus, energy and a memory. Ultimately, Steve used his brain to change his age and in the process he saved his life.''
Amen believes most people are unaware of the part psychology plays in the maintenance of a healthy weight.
''Very few people talk about brain-directed weight loss,'' he says.
Health professionals are becoming increasingly interested in the psychological aspects of weight loss.
A dietitian with the Dietitians Association of Australia, Tania Ferraretto, works specifically in the area of eating behaviour.
She believes there is a lot more to healthy weight maintenance than simply eating less and moving more.
''I get really annoyed when we constantly see new diets,'' she says.
''They are so simplistic. Most people know what they have to do to lose weight; they just don't do it. So you have to look at why they are not doing it. And most of the time it's nothing to do with appetite.
''It's a complex issue. There is no quick fix, there is no silver bullet, there is no one diet that will suit everyone.
''That's why people do need to look at their own individual situation and really look at the reasons why they eat the way they eat.''
She believes women are more prone to eating for emotional reasons than men.
''When we see men for weight loss, on the whole it's often related to a lack of awareness,'' she says.
''They'll say they have to go to business lunches as part of their job. All they need is practical suggestions.
''They don't have to think too much about it, they just have to do it … For most women it's much more complicated. Most women know what to do but for various reasons - and it's often to do with emotions - they find it hard.
''It's a generalisation but guys often manage stress or depression with alcohol whereas women do the same with food.
''Using food to comfort yourself or treat yourself is a common thing.''
Ferraretto asks her clients to keep a food diary, recording not just what they are eating but what is happening in their lives at the same time.
''If they find they overeat under certain circumstances we talk about other strategies … to cope in those situations,'' she says.
''They learn how to manage without turning to food. You really do need to unpick the whole thing and try to work out what's going on.''
The fact we're spending millions on weight-loss products and yet, as a nation, we are still overweight suggests conventional diets don't work. Several books examining the psychological side of weight loss have appeared on shelves recently, including Marianne Williamson's A Course in Weight Loss. Williamson was inspired to write the book by Australian woman Grace Gedeon, a lawyer-turned-counsellor who lost 68 kilograms after changing her food habits.
The book has been praised by Oprah Winfrey and Gedeon and Williamson now run international workshops sharing their expertise.

Compulsive overeater

Description Do you think about food constantly? Are you planning dinner while still digesting breakfast?
Action Avoid high-protein diets because these foods are thought to increase focus - which compulsive types already have. Try eating more complex carbohydrates, which help the body produce more serotonin and improve moods.

Impulsive overeater

Description Do you lack control when it comes to food? Are you the type of person who can't stop at one slice of cake or one hot chip?
Action According to Amen, they should avoid complex carbohydrates because they will reduce control further. Try dopamine-raising foods such as chicken and oats because they are thought to increase concentration.

Compulsive-impulsive overeater

Description These people face a double-whammy when eating. Not only do they seem to ''crave'' food constantly, they find it hard to stop themselves once they start eating it.
Action Amen believes these people can harness their compulsive-impulsive natures and try to switch their focus from food to exercise. Not only will the exercise help them maintain a healthier weight, if they are out in the park, they are away from the kitchen cupboard.

Sad overeater

Description Do you turn to trans-fat-laden foods for comfort when feeling depressed or overwrought? Or do you seek succour in sweets?
Action Amen recommends emotional eaters should increase their consumption of omega-3 fatty acids, found in whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables and fish. These can help calm the body.

Anxious overeater

Description Do you use food for medicinal purposes when feeling tense, nervous or fearful?
Action Caffeine, found in coffee as well as cola drinks, energy drinks and chocolate, is a big no-no for these people. It will not alleviate their anxiety. Instead, Amen recommends they try a diet high in the amino acid glutamine, which is found in lentils, broccoli and nuts.

'Train Your Brain' program offered by Alzheimer's Association

The Quincy Area Branch of the Alzheimer's Association is hoping to entice healthy individuals in their 40s and older to participate in the "Train Your Brain" program. 
The six-week program starts Thursday and will meet on ensuing Thursdays through Nov. 10. The sessions will all run 6-7:30 p.m. at the Quincy Senior and Family Resource Center, 639 York. 
"We know there's a lot you can do to help keep your brain healthier as you age," said Breeana Hill, branch manager of the Quincy office of the Alzheimer's Association. 
Each week of the program will feature a brain-related topic and a guest speaker: 
º Week 1: "Now What Was I Saying?" will be a public health and education program that teaches participants steps they can take now to make brain health one of the overall goals of a healthy aging process. Representatives of the Alzheimer's Association will be the presenters. 
º Week 2: "How Diet Affects the Brain" will be offered by Lucy Crain, a registered dietician with the Quincy Medical Group. 
º Week 3: "Techniques to Manage Stress" will be presented by Dr. Irving Schwartz of Blessing Physician Services. 
º Week 4: "The Healthy Benefits of Tea" will be explained by Susan Asher of Thyme-Out Tea Parties. 
º Week 5: "Exercising to Keep the Brain Alert" will be the subject of Dixie Kindred, a Tai Chi instructor. 
º Week 6: "Importance of Socialization" will be the theme of a presentation by David Gabbert, the aquatics director of the Quincy YMCA. 
"We have developed this program as part of our mission to reduce the risk of dementia through the promotion of brain health," Hill said. "These steps might reduce your risk of Alzheimer's disease or another dementia.
" Cost for the six-week program is $30 per person. Participants will receive a tote bag,brain puzzle book, handouts for each session and a certificate upon completion.

Registration is required by calling (217) 228-1111. 
The Quincy Area Branch of the Alzheimer's Association serves Adams, Brown, Hancock, Pike and Schuyler counties.

Brain cells recognise whole face, not parts

Brain cells or neurons can recognise whole faces, not their parts, enabling us to tell friends from strangers or a sad from a happy face. "The finding really surprised us," said Ueli Rutishauser, study co-author, neuroscientist and visitor at the biology division of California Institute of Technology (Caltech). "Here you have neurons that respond well to seeing pictures of whole faces, but when you show them only parts of faces, they actually respond less and less," said Rutishauser, the journal Current Biology reports. Neurons are located in the amygdala, part of the brain that processes emotions. However, these results show that amygdala may have a more general role in processing stimuli such as faces, according to a Caltech statement. Other researchers have described the amygdala's neuronal response to faces before, but this dramatic selectivity -- which requires the face to be whole in order to elicit a response -- is a new insight. "Our interpretation of this initially puzzling effect is that the brain cares about representing the entire face, and needs to be highly sensitive to anything wrong with the face, like a part missing," explained Ralph Adolphs, senior study author and professor of neuroscience at Caltech. "This is probably an important mechanism to ensure that we do not mistake one person for another and to help us keep track of many individuals." The findings could pave the way for better understanding of a variety of psychiatric diseases such as mood disorders and autism.

How your brain reacts to mistakes ''depends on your mindset''

Washington, Oct 2 (PTI) You agree or not, how your brain reacts to mistakes depends on your mindset, say researchers. A new study, led by Michigan State University, has found that people who think they can learn from their mistakes have a different brain reaction to mistakes than people who think intelligence is fixed. "One big difference between people who think intelligence is malleable and those who think intelligence is fixed is how they respond to mistakes," said lead researcher Jason Moser. People who think that they can''t get smarter will not take opportunities to learn from their mistakes. This can be a problem in school, for example -- a student who thinks her intelligence is fixed will think it''s not worth bothering to try harder after she fails a test, say the researchers. For this study, the researchers gave participants a task that is easy to make a mistake on. They were supposed to identify the middle letter of a five-letter series like "MMMMM" or "NNMNN". Sometimes the middle letter was the same as the other four, and sometimes it was different. "It''s pretty simple, doing the same thing over and over, but the mind can''t help it; it just kind of zones out from time to time," said Moser. .

Doctors work to protect brain when treating near-drowning

NEWARK — When a near-drowning victim arrives at Children’s Hospital, doctors’ main priority is to protect the child’s brain, said Dr. Nadeem Khan, chief of the Division of Critical Care Medicine at Children’s and medical director of the pediatric intensive care unit. “In a near-drowning episode, the most important organ is the brain, because it has a very short period where it can sustain itself without damage,” Khan said. When a person is drowning, the body begins shutting down blood flow to the unnecessary areas — such as the skin and kidneys — to try to keep oxygen going to the brain. Once the brain is damaged, it doesn’t regenerate, Khan said. Every near-drowning is different, and health consequences vary depending on the state of the patient when they are rescued. If they receive CPR immediately after being pulled from the water, their chances of survival are better, he said. “It’s hard to predict how a patient will end up. There are no hard and fast rules,” Khan said. With every drowning patient who comes into Children’s, doctors work to stabilize his or her breathing and blood pressure. Some children are placed in a medically induced coma, to rest their bodies and brains, Khan said. Once they are stable, some children might have to go through rehabilitation to recover completely, he said. Children’s is part of a National Institutes of Health-sponsored study looking at the effect body temperature has on the recovery of children in near-drowning accidents. Some in the medical community think lowering patients’ body temperatures can help them recover, Khan said. If parents give permission for their children to be in the study, they randomly are assigned to a group. Patients in one group have their body temperature maintained at a normal temperature. Others have their body temperature lowered and kept there for more than 24 hours, Khan said. The study results will give doctors better insight on how to help children recover, Khan said.

In the Spirit: Brain researchers step gingerly into faith debate

The headline seemed more suited to The Onion than "Scientific American" magazine: "Religious experiences shrink part of the brain."
But the article was real, as was the recent study by researchers at Duke University.
I reached out to the study's lead author, Amy Owen, whom I recognized from her research on forgiveness at UW-Madison. Owen, 34, lived in Madison from 1999 to 2009 while earning a master's degree in counseling and a doctorate in educational psychology.
"Researchers have looked at how the brain functions during spiritual practices, such as meditation and prayer," Owen told me. "We wondered if religious factors could be associated with changes in the physical structure of the brain over time."
Owen and her colleagues evaluated a series of MRIs of 268 men and women aged 58 and older as they aged. The participants answered questions regarding their religious experiences and affiliations.
The researchers looked specifically at the hippocampus, a brain region prior studies identified as potentially involved in religious factors. The size of the hippocampus has been linked to depression, dementia and Alzheimer's disease — the smaller its volume, the greater the likelihood of those outcomes.
While it is normal for our brains to shrink as we age, different parts of the brain tend to shrink at different rates, Owen said.
Participants who reported being "born-again" Protestants showed the greatest shrinkage of the hippocampus over time. (The term was defined as having a conversion experience during which one's life is dedicated to Jesus.)
Significant shrinkage also was found among Catholics, those with no religious affiliation and those reporting a life-changing religious experience. Those with the least shrinkage were Protestants not identifying as born again.
Demographic or psychosocial factors assessed in the study did not explain the differences, Owen said.
Because this type of research is fairly new, far more study is needed for conclusive explanations, she said. But she and her colleagues offer a theory, based on stress as one reason the hippocampus is known to shrink.
Their hypothesis is that members of minority Christian denominations or those with no religious affiliation feel greater cumulative stress because their religious beliefs, practices or worldviews are out of step with the larger society. Also, a life-changing religious experience, even if positive overall, could lead to disruptions in valued beliefs and social networks, increasing stress.
"I'd love to know how accurate this hypothesis is," Owen said. "I'm hoping this work will inspire others to do detailed research on why we found what we found."

No scars after new surgery removes brain tumouNo scars after new surgery removes brain tumours through the nose

Retired company director Ron Jones has undergone a remarkable new form of surgery that allows brain tumors to be removed through the nose.
Traditionally, such operations involved surgeons opening  the skull – a procedure known  as a craniotomy – and delving downwards.
Alternatively, parts of the brain were reached via large incisions in the side of the face or inside the mouth, all options that leave major scars.
Revolutionary: Traditionally, such operations involved surgeons opening the skull
Revolutionary: Traditionally, such operations involved surgeons opening the skull
But pioneering brain surgeons at Sheffield’s Hallamshire Hospital have adopted a  US-developed technique to reach deep-set tumors using  an endoscope that is fed  through the nose.
Ron, 83, a former grain salesman who lives in Market Rasen, Lincolnshire, with his wife Sylvia, a former teacher, was diagnosed with a tumor  on his pituitary gland, which  sits at the base of the skull, in October last year. 

These growths  are ideally suited for nasal endoscopy because the gland is close to the back of the nasal cavity and relatively easy to reach. Ron’s tumor was the size of a small egg.
  1. Surgeons now hope the success of this operation will pave the way for other types of brain tumor to be removed without making a single incision.
The tumor is reached by  working through one nostril and making a hole in the back of the nasal cavity into the bottom of the skull. Through this hole, the surgeon can see the bottom of the pituitary gland and the tumor.
Pioneering: The tumour is reached by working through one nostril and making a hole in the back of the nasal cavity into the bottom of the skull
Pioneering: The tumor is reached by working through one nostril and making a hole in the back of the nasal cavity into the bottom of the skull
Cutting instruments, also mounted on flexible or telescopic arms, are used to remove the growth in pieces. The new procedure reduces the operating time by up to  two hours,
reduces the risk  of infection, and allows for  a quicker recovery compared  to the older techniques.
Neurosurgeon Saurabh Sinha, who operated on Ron, says: ‘The endoscope provides a close-up view of the pituitary which means we can get all of the tumor out in one go.
‘Because of Ron’s age, he might not have been considered for open brain surgery, as older patients don’t always recover from such a major procedure. And patients who have weaker hearts will benefit from this innovation. The beauty of the procedure is that there is less danger of brain damage or stroke, and the patient makes  a quicker recovery.
Before, they may have been in hospital for a week. Now I can discharge some patients within three days.’
‘I first noticed something last year,’ says Ron. ‘I saw a tide mark in my vision. Later, I started having blinding headaches and seeing double.’
Scans showed Ron had a growth on his pituitary gland. About 2,000 people a year require surgery to remove tumors on the pituitary.
Oval in shape, the gland measures an inch in length and it secretes eight hormones that control vital functions, such as body growth, general health and energy levels. In men it is responsible  for producing the sex hormone testosterone. Ten to 20 per cent of people have a benign pituitary tumor, but only a small  proportion of these cause symptoms, with a tiny fraction needing surgery. Most people are likely to live a normal life without knowing they have a tumor. But Ron’s growth was so large it was pressing on the nerves around the eyes, affecting his vision.
‘I was also suffering pain in my joints, and having trouble going to the loo which doctors explained wasn’t just my age, but because the tumor was stopping my body from releasing the right hormones,’ says Ron. When he came round from the surgery there wasn’t  a single external mark.
‘When I was told I had a tumour in my head I had visions of my skull being sliced open to remove it,’ he says. ‘Now my sight is back to normal and I have been in no pain at all. I was walking around straight away, and back to playing golf in  two months. My memory isn’t what it was, and I have to write things down or I forget them, but I suppose that could just be my age. Physically, though, I feel better than ever.’