Friday, May 5, 2017

What your brain is telling you right now

Think about it: What are you doing to keep your brain healthy and fit?

It might seem like our brains can take care of themselves, but let’s not forget to help a brain out! If you’re feeling foggy, stressed, forgetful, moody, sleepy, or just not as sharp as you used to be, your brain might be trying to tell you something.

“Your brain needs just as much fuel and activity as the rest of your body, if not more,” says Lilly Graziani, CREATION Health Education Manager at Florida Hospital. Your brain is always working. It’s your center- directing every single body system. If you are not giving it what it needs to thrive, it will cry out for help.

Here are some things your brain might be saying, and some tips on what you can do about it.

“Hey, I’m on empty!”

“The only nutrient your brain thrives on is glucose, a form of sugar,” says Graziani. Glucose is the main source of energy for every cell in your body, but because the brain has so many nerve cells, it needs the most energy out of any other organ in your body.

Graziani adds, “If your brain is low on glucose, you might start to feel distracted or less focused.” She says that reaching for that extra cup of coffee – as many people do – will only ramp your brain up even more, leaving it further depleted. Instead, she suggests eating some “brain food.”

Brain food provides the healthiest nutrients for optimal brain function. Here’s a list of go-tos to start:

  • Sources of omega – 3 fats (salmon, flax seeds, chia seeds) 
  • Walnuts 
  • Blueberries 
  • Whole-grains (Brown rice, quinoa) 
  • Any fresh fruit or vegetable (especially spinach, tomatoes, onions, and apples)

It’s important to note that the brain’s need for glucose doesn’t mean soda or cookies qualify as brain foods. In fact, “Processed grains and added sugars or syrups can backfire on your brain by interfering with your normal metabolism and blood sugar levels,” informs Graziani.

“I’m drying up here.”

Did you know that your brain is 80 percent water? All 100 billion of your brain cells need water to receive energy. Being the slightest bit dehydrated can affect your brain cell and cognitive function.

Graziani suggests, “Reach for water- not sweet treats or caffeine – if you’re feeling mental fog set in.” Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water throughout your day, especially when you are doing something mentally or physically taxing.

“Give me a break!” Your brain never sleeps, but it does need to rest to rejuvenate at night. “It’s recommended to get at least seven to eight hours of sleep for brain health, but 40 percent of Americans get less than six hours,” Graziani states.

When you are not getting enough sleep and you feel tired, your brain will still try to run at full capacity. To get a quick energy fix, the brain signals the release of a stress hormone called cortisol. This hormone is important, but it’s not good in high and frequent quantities. Your brain might also tell you to eat that donut for a quick burst of fuel. If you’re getting adequate sleep, however, these triggers are less likely to occur.

Graziani says, “With children, we are good about telling them to go to bed because they “need sleep,” but somehow adults start to deprioritize it.” If you have a brain, (yes, adults, that includes you all too) you must give it a solid break.

“Ah! O.V.E.R.L.O.A.D.” The brain does not function well under physical stress. In fight or flight mode, it is focused on one thing: survival. This may sound silly, because being stressed over a project deadline at work isn’t really “survival,” but your body doesn’t know that – it reacts to any perceived stress the same way.

Graziani suggests, “The best way to break down and reduce the manifestations of stress in your body is to identify your stress triggers and feelings. When you say “I’m stressed” you’re not usually talking about your body’s cortisol levels rising or your heart beating faster- you’re usually talking about a feeling. Take control over and manage these feelings before they trigger physical stress responses.

Multitasking too much can also short circuit your brain. Graziani adds, “When you start to do too many things at once, you are setting your brain up for failure.” Try to focus on one thing or person at a time, and live in the moment as much as possible to prevent your brain from yelling “Ah!”

“Umm, what a bore.”

Just like you must work your muscles, you must work your brain. Graziani says that it’s important to keep your mind busy with stimulating activities like learning a new language, doing puzzles, reading, taking a course or playing board games.

This keeps gray matter active in the brain, which is the center for memory. She adds, “Try to get at least 10 to 20 minutes of brain stimulating activities in at least five days per week to keep the neurons firing and the brain from getting bored.”

“Can you repeat that?”

“When we age, our bodies age right along with us,” says Graziani. Some natural decline in mental sharpness can happen over time, but stay on top of it with activities that work your mental recall, like writing things down, asking people to repeat important pieces of information, saying things out loud or playing memory games.


“When we are happy our bodies release a flood of chemicals that help us to think more clearly and be more creative,” says Graziani. Simply put, when you are happy, you aren’t stressed, which means that your brain can focus on the positive things around you- not just how it’s going to survive the moment. “Having a more positive outlook actually helps us to be more productive and manage stressors when they appear in our lives,” she says.

“Help, I need a jump-start.”

If you’re at your desk with midafternoon sleepiness, think about giving your brain a fitness break. Even a short spurt of physical activity can increase the flow of blood, oxygen and glucose to the brain- giving it an instant jump-start.

Graziani references one recent study, which analyzed two groups of school-aged kids on their tests performances. One group had physical education class and then took their test; the other group had the physical education class after their test. Not surprisingly, the group of kids who were physically active right before their test scored better compared to the other group. “Case in point: physical activity can boost your brain performance,” she says.

Your brain is a remarkable organ, and sometimes, it just needs a little love. “Pay attention to what your brain might be telling you,” suggests Graziani. You might be surprised at what a little extra attention to your brain health and fitness can bring into your overall health, productivity and happiness.

Discovery of new pathway in brain has implications for schizophrenia treatment

Neuroscientists have discovered a new signaling pathway that directly connects the brain’s NMDA and a7nACh receptors – both associated with learning and memory –– which has significance for development of drugs to treat schizophrenia. Astrocytes are the key elements that link the receptors, say investigators.

A study has discovered that astrocytes (fluorescing green cells) are a key element that link major brain receptors associated with learning and memory. Neurons are red.
Neuroscientists at Tufts University School of Medicine have discovered a new signaling pathway that directly connects two major receptors in the brain associated with learning and memory -- the N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor (NMDAR) and the alpha 7 nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (a7nAChR) -- which has significance for current efforts to develop drugs to treat schizophrenia. These findings demonstrate that astrocytes, a type of non-neuronal (or glial) cell once thought to have little part in brain information processing but now known to play important roles, are the key element that functionally links these two receptors.
The study, "Septal cholinergic neuromodulation tunes the astrocyte-dependent gating of hippocampal NMDA receptors to wakefulness," is published in Neuron, May 4, 2017, online in advance of final publication.
"The NMDAR is the most investigated receptor in neuroscience because it is essential to synaptic plasticity, which is instrumental in establishing and remodeling brain circuitry and is thought to be the cellular foundation of learning and memory," said Thomas Papouin, Ph.D., research assistant professor at Tufts School of Medicine and lead author of the study. "The NMDAR is known to be activated by two chemicals: glutamate, which is supplied by neurons, and D-serine, which is supplied by astrocytes. While most research is focused on the role that neurons play in activating the NMDAR via glutamate, we focused on the role played by astrocytes through the release of D-serine."
Using in vitro and in vivo approaches in mice, the Tufts scientists found that astrocytes adjust their release of D-serine according to the degree of wakefulness of the mice. The astrocytes directly monitor wakefulness via the a7nAChR by sensing the level of ambient acetylcholine, a neuromodulator released in human and rodent brains during wakefulness. The more active the mice, the more D-serine is released by astrocytes, which allows a more robust activation of NMDARs. This was true even if researchers stimulated activity during times of day when mice are normally quiet.
"Astrocytes act like the dimmer control of a light," Papouin said. "When the neuronal switch goes on, and glutamate is released, the setting of the astrocytic D-serine 'dimmer' determines the intensity of the NMDAR signal. During wakefulness, this dimmer is set on high -- astrocytes provide a lot of D-serine -- and this allows for a strong NMDAR signal. But during sleep or inactivity, it is set on low, allowing for a weaker signal."
A New Framework for Treating Schizophrenia
The study offers a new functional framework for treating schizophrenia and opens fresh avenues for therapeutics and innovations in glial biology.
"This is an exciting finding with direct relevance to development of new treatments for schizophrenia, which is characterized by low levels of D-serine and diminished NMDAR as well as a major loss of cholinergic function. Efforts to develop pharmaceuticals to address these deficits have so far been unsuccessful, but in our study we were able to enhance NMDAR function via D-serine by stimulating a7nAChRs with a drug that has been part of recent stage 3 clinical trials for schizophrenia," said Philip G. Haydon, Ph.D., corresponding author on the paper, the Annetta and Gustav Grisard professor and chair of the Department of Neuroscience at Tufts School of Medicine, and a member of the neuroscience program faculty at the Sackler School of Graduate Biomedical Sciences at Tufts. "This suggests that cholinergic drugs now under development for schizophrenia work through this newly discovered astrocytic pathway."
The study is the latest work from the Haydon group at Tufts, which focuses on astrocytes and the role they play in regulating synaptic transmission and neuronal circuits and in controlling behavior and disorders of the nervous system.
Seventeen years ago, the group introduced the "tripartite-synapse," the first concept to acknowledge the role of astrocytes in the integration and processing of information at synapses. "In this paper we build on that concept to update our view of the role of astrocytes in computing information about the brain," said Haydon. "Based on these findings and evidence recently published by others, we propose a new concept of 'contextual guidance' which incorporates how astrocytes tune synaptic activity to relevant global contexts by sensing the remote activity of neuromodulators such as acetylcholine and norepinephrine."

Secret to brain success: Intelligent cognitive rest

Many people do focused brain exercises to help develop their thinking. Some of these exercises work, while others do not. Regardless, the focus network in the brain is not the only network that needs training. The “unfocus” network needs training too.

The “unfocus network” (or default mode network)

Called the default mode network (DMN), we used to think of the unfocus network as the Do Mostly Nothing network. And this network uses more energy than any other network in the brain, consuming 20% of the body’s energy while at rest. In fact, effort requires just 5% more energy. As you can imagine, this network is doing anything but “resting” even though it operates largely under the conscious radar. Instead, when you turn your “focus” brain off, it will retrieve memories, link ideas so that you become more creative, and also help you feel more self-connected too. Somewhat surprisingly, although the DMN is involved in representing and understanding your self, it also helps you read the minds of others. No wonder then, with all these functions on board, this network metaphorically converts your brain into a crystal ball, allowing you to predict things more accurately too. This is the kind of sharpness that you will develop if you train the DMN.
There are many ways to activate the DMN. Below are some that will give you a good start.

Surprising ways to train the default mode network

Some simple interventions could help you engage this network, depending on your goal.
Napping: If, for example, you are dog tired in the midafternoon, and just need your mind to be clear, a 10-minute nap might be all you need for sharper thinking. But if you have a major creative project ahead of you, whether it is an innovative idea at work, or redecorating your house, you will need at least 90-minutes of napping time. This gives your brain enough time to shuttle around ideas to make the associations that it needs to make.
Positive constructive daydreaming (PCD): It’s hard to imagine daydreaming as a type of training, but it is. It has to be the right type of daydreaming. According to Jerome Singer, who has studied this for decades, slipping into a daydream is not of much use; neither is guiltily rehashing everything that makes you feel bad — like the expense you incurred when you bought the shoes you liked, or the one-too-many drinks that you had at a party. But there is a type of daydreaming that will make you more creative and likely re-energize your brain. Called positive constructive daydreaming (PCD), it is best done while you are engaged in a low-key activity, not when you are fading. And as opposed to slipping into a daydream, which is more like falling off a cliff, you must parachute into the recesses of your mind with a playful and wishful image — perhaps one of you lying on a yacht or floating on your back in a pool on vacation. Then comes the swivel of attention — from looking outside, to wandering inside. With this move, you engage your unfocus brain and all the riches that it can bring.
Physical exercise and free-walking: In the brain, thinking supports movement, and movement supports thinking. In fact, exercise improves your DMN function. It normalizes it in obese people (who have too much of it) and increases connectivity in young healthy people. Even a single session can make a difference. Aerobic exercise can help prevent atrophy of key regions within the DMN, and also help the connectivity between different regions too.
Walking does boost creative thinking, but how you walk maters. One year of walking boosts the connections between the different parts of the DMN too. In 2012, psychology professor Angela K. Leung and her colleagues tested three groups of people. One group walked around in rectangles while completing a mental test; one group walked around freely; and the last group sat down while taking the test. The free-walking group outperformed the other two groups. Other studies have shown that free-walking results in improvements in fluency, flexibility, and originality of thinking. So if you want to boost your creativity, go on a meandering hike on a safe path less traveled. Furthermore, walking outdoors may be even more beneficial than puttering around the house (unless you’re using PCD, of course!)

Why you should focus on unfocus

We now know that focus is important in improving how we think, but for optimal brain training, we need both focus and unfocus. So, build unfocus times into your day. Ensure that you’re not in one continuous slog. Your brain is wired for focus and unfocus to work together, so take advantage of both types of intelligence when thinking of training your complex but delightful brain.