Optimal brain function
Four things are important for optimal brain function:
- a stimulating environment involving novelty, requiring continual learning
- brain nutrition (e.g. Omega 3, B6, B12, Zinc, Epicathechin, Folic Acid) and avoiding sugar and bad fats (e.g. trans fatty acids such as you find in margarine).
- brain training (executive process training such as High IQ Pro),
- regular aerobic physical exercise
We can add to this:
- not having chronic stress – cortisol is a hormone that seriously damages the brain
- having decent sleep – REM (dreaming) sleep is essential for complex learning
Another study has just come out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing that cognitive health benefits of a regular run. Neuroscientists in Cambridge – a Ph.D friend from the CNBC program among them – recently joined forces with researchers at the US National Institute on Ageing in Maryland to investigate the effect of running on the brain.
They looked at rats’ brains. A lot can be said about how human brains work by looking at the workings of other mammal brains. There are remarkable similarities, and most differences in all but the highest cognitive functions are differences of degree.
They found that running stimulates the brain to grow new neurons – new grey matter – in part of the brain used for spatial memories called the hippocampus. The hippocampus is also critical for our fluid intelligence. Brain tissue taken from the rodents showed that the running mice had grown fresh grey matter during the experiment. Tissue samples from the hippocampus revealed on average 6,000 new brain cells in every cubic millimeter! The hippocampus is one of the few areas of the brain that can grow new neurons throughout adulthood – a process called ‘neurogenesis’.
Cell death in the hippocampus is relatively high as we age – a process called ‘cognitive aging’ -making exercise that much more important for maintaining peak performance as we age.
How it works
“We know exercise can be good for healthy brain function, but this work provides us with a mechanism for the effect” reports my colleague Timothy Bussey, a behavioural neuroscientist at Cambridge.
So what do all these new brain cells do? In their study they found that running – and new cell growth – benefited rats not so much in basic memory tasks such as learning a new object and its location, but in tasks where the objects that were to be remembered were physically identical but could be distinguished based on their spatial relations (e.g. left vs right). The running mice clocked up an average of 15 miles (24km) a day! Their scores on this type of memory test was nearly TWICE as high as those who did no exercise.
It seems that the continual growth of new neurons in the hippocampus ensures that similar events in our experience are encoded uniquely based on their context – in both space and time (x happened after y is a kind of context in time, just like x is to the left of y is a context in space).
This kind of memory translates into our ability to remember what a person had for dinner yesterday and the day before, or where they parked on different trips to the supermarket – exactly the kind of context-dependent memory that is vulnerable to cognitive aging.
Link with fluid intelligence and the IQ Mindware ‘dual n-back’ working memory exercises
This is also precisely the kind of memory that is essential to working memory and fluid intelligence but on a smaller time scale. For instance in the IQ Mindware working memory exercises, you have to continually update in your short term memory the location of a small square and a letter. It is only the relative location of the square and its order in time that enables you to keep track of it in memory.
Fluid intelligence is our on-the-spot reasoning and problem solving ability. It is this kind of advanced short term memory that needs new brain cells for each act of cognition that is needed for fluid intelligence.
Just like jogging, IQ Mindware brain training exercise will certainly stimulate the production of new neurons in the hippocampus highly useful for flexible learning and fluid intelligence. While a study has been done showing cell growth in the frontal and parietal lobes with our exercise, this particular study looking at its effects on brain cell production has not yet been done. I’m looking forward to seeing the lab that first does it.
When I run, I think about everything: physics, family problems, plans for the weekend. I haven’t made any big discoveries on a run, but it does give me time to think through problems. Some solutions are obvious, but they are only obvious when you are relaxed enough to find them.
Wolfgang Ketterle, Nobel prizewinning physicist, MIT
Being a runner, to me, has made being depressed impossible. If ever I’m going through something emotional and just go outside for a run, you can rest assured that I’ll come back with clarity and empowerment.
Alanis Morissette, singer-songwriter