Literally Keeping Your Wits About You 

By Leah Lancione 

          The topic of brain cells and how to preserve or regenerate them is a hot one. With all the debate over whether the government should fund medical research using human embryonic stem cells, it’s clear that people are concerned with finding treatment for neurological disorders and diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), multiple sclerosis and more. The American Academy of Neurology (AAN) and the American Neurological Association (ANA) have both gotten government funding of biomedical research that incorporates the use of human embryonic stem cells. Whether you’re for or against the use of such cells, you likely agree that there is virtue in trying to preserve brain functions. Although studies regarding what degrades and what stimulates brain cells continue, there is evidence that certain practices may indeed help preserve your brain functions. 


          In an article entitled, “Smart Ways to Keep Your Brain Sharp and Dementia at Bay,” writer Leslie Garcia quotes Dallas neurologist Malcolm Stewart as saying, “It’s very important that we change people so they’re physically and mentally active. The pathology of aging is going on, but you’re able to reduce the damage; you’re able to keep the function up.”

Apparently, exercise stimulates hormones (endorphins) in our brain that deal with memory. Chances are if you are more active, which causes more oxygen to flow to your brain and other organs, the sharper your mind is. Dr. Stewart also says that exercise increases activity in the frontal lobe of the brain, sending signals that increase the amount of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) that rouses memory cells. He calls BDNF Miracle-Gro  for memory cells.

WebMD published an article called “Train Your Brain With Exercise” in which John J. Ratey, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, explains that “exercise is like taking a little Prozac or a little Ritalin at just the right moment.” He says exercise ultimately benefits the brain just as much as it does the body since “it affects mood, vitality, alertness and feelings of well-being.”

Further evidence that exercise can significantly improve brain cell function was cited by Science Daily in an article entitled, “Exercise Stimulates the Formation of New Brain Cells.” According to the article, exercise works similarly to antidepressants’ role in treating depression. The study performed on rats cited reveals how both exercise and antidepressants increase the formation of new cells in an area of the brain that is important to memory and learning. This could explain the often overheard comment of experiencing a “rush” after taking a brisk walk or completing a workout. 


          Everyone knows that the better you eat, the better you feel. Well, proper nutrition goes beyond just looking and feeling great. “Scientists know that certain nutrients and other key chemical compounds are essential to human brain function,” according to the  The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Research Service (ARS) has conducted tests to determine the effects of diet on brain function, loss or maintenance of brain cells and neuron communication. The article reports that even though people do lose brain cells naturally as they age, “There is a lot of individual difference.” ARS neuroscientist James Joseph reports that the deterioration of mental agility may be triggered more by the inability of brain cells to communicate effectively, rather than by the loss of brain cells.

          Studies are looking into whether a conscientious diet can help protect the brain from brain cell communication and signals that relate to memory and cognition (the process of thought). Dr. Joseph confirms what any nutrition-conscious person already thought: “Vitamins and minerals found in plant foods provide protective antioxidants.” And he adds that “fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and grains contain thousands of other types of compounds” contribute significantly to the overall dietary intake of antioxidants.” (These are molecules that protect the body from damage caused by harmful molecules called free radicals.)

In one of Dr. Joseph’s studies published in the Journal of Neuroscience, and conducted on rats, it was shown that antioxidants do have a protective result. The rats fed vitamin E, strawberry extracts and spinach extracts (all with high antioxidant levels) did not experience the age-related decline of cognitive function as those that were fed regular diets. Although it is uncertain whether the study results on rats can translate to humans, it does suggest that a healthy diet can make a difference. 

Play with Your Mind

          There’s always a lot of talk about exercising your body and getting fit. Well, you can also train your brain to be more active, alert and able to process information efficiently. In a March 2009 article titled “How to Save New Brain Cells” in Scientific American Magazine, research found that “the more they (neurons, brain cells) are challenged, the more they flourish.” The article explains that thousands of cells in the adult brain are born every day, however, they die after a couple of weeks unless challenged to learn something new like memorizing lists, solving crossword puzzles, doing Sudoku, reading, playing chess and doing other deliberate brain activity-stimulating tests and activities. The educational website is like a virtual gym that offers brain training programs like testing your memory, creativity and reflexes as well as math and word teasers that aim to get your brain in shape.



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