October 10, 2012

Rewiring the Brain with Mental Exercise

Lets talk about fitness. No, not the kind of feel the burn vigorous exercises that leave your muscles achingly taut.

We are talking about a cerebral workout the mental stimulation that improves your brain function and protects it against cognitive decline, keeping it fit and healthy even as you age.

The brain ear connection

Did you know that we hear in our brains and not in our ears? In fact, sound is carried in waves to the eardrum, which then sends the message to the brain. The brain, in turn, processes the stimuli our ears hear. This may come across as an overly-simplistic description of a complex function, but that is basically how the sound is transmitted.

That means that in order for us to process speech adequately, especially in crowded places with several simultaneous conversations carried on around us, our brains must be strong and alert. Brains weakened by either age or disease cannot keep up with the constant stream of conversations, affecting our ability to listen, hear, and understand.

Many studies in the recent years have demonstrated this correlation between a strong brain and good hearing, and, consequently, between a diminished brain function in older people and the age-related hearing loss.

One of these studies, for example, conducted by neuroscientists at the International Center for Hearing and Speech Research in Rochester, N.Y., has found that even patients with normal ears may have trouble understanding a conversation because their brains are not agile enough. In other words, they have auditory processing issues, not necessarily hearing issues.

Your brain at a party

Say youre going to a social gathering with many other people. Since there will be several conversations going on at the same time, you would like to be able to participate or at least listen to all of them.

Such a noisy party scenario is a challenge even for those with perfectly tuned ears. For the hearing-impaired, who have to put in an extra effort into refocusing on each new speaker, such a party might turn out to be a frustrating and exhausting experience.

And this is where another scientific study comes in. A recent Boston University research looked into how the brain controls auditory attention in complex settings with a mix of competing sounds.

The findings shed light on why it is more difficult to follow a conversation involving many people than to focus on one, the study concluded, bearing out that this is a tough task for a weakened brain to keep up with.

Fortunately for persons whose auditory processing abilities have began to diminish, there is a way to maximize our brainpower even as we age mental exercise!

Jumping jacks for the brain

Just as our bodies need a good workout to stay healthy, supple and strong, so do our brains.

And there are several exercise options out there.

One, based on findings of a joint US-Swiss study, says computer-based tests that challenge the individual according to his or her ability may be just what a doctor ordered. The mind games involving – among other brain-twisters – matching of patterned squares and recalling letter sequences, were repeated daily for nearly three weeks.

“The mental ability of everyone who had taken part improved,” concluded Professor Walter Perrig of the University of Bern, who carried out the study with colleagues from the University of Michigan.

Another brain booster is the PositScience Brain Fitness computer program that uses cutting-edge research in neuroscience to increase brain plasticity – the lifelong ability of the brain to reorganize neural pathways based on new experiences.

The program is made up of six exercises, each one targeting one aspect of auditory processing and memory, while strengthening the skills developed in other exercises. Together, they stimulate the brain, keeping it fit and healthy.

Other brain fitness exercises are available as well and many local organizations are beginning to offer brain exercise classes for their community; all it takes is a little research to find one your brain will enjoy.

Food for thought – literally

Of course, no exercise program is complete without healthy nutrition. When it comes to powering your brain, what you eat can make a difference between a strong and sluggish brain.

Just as healthy food has been shown to improve kids academic performance, it will boost your brain as well at any age.

The ABCs of good nutrition are energy sources such as whole grains and protein, as well as vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables. Foods made of refined sugar, on the other hand, or high in saturated fat, are not brain friendly, and your other body organs will not like them either.

So, at the end of the day, boosting your brainpower is a no-brainer: simply put, use it or lose it.