HealthAgenda

Mental Health

The power of brain training

Can you really train your brain to perform 30 years younger? According to the experts, neuroplasticity means you’re only as young as your brain can think.

Health Agenda magazine
January 2017

Dr Michael Merzenich walks 40 minutes a day around the parks, streets and hills near his home in San Francisco, while making a mental map of all that he sees. He takes his dog on a different route each time, taking note of the homes, people and plants they pass.

It’s just one way that the world-renowned neuroscientist trains his brain to remain fast and nimble. How nimble? The 74-year-old equates his own brain’s performance to that of an average 30-year-old.

“I’m trying to reconstruct the landscape in my mind, down to the smallest detail. If I see a praying mantis on a plant I’m excited, it’s like living as a kid again,” he says, with a smile.

“I’m not walking mindlessly. I’m always trying to keep my brain lively and open to all possibilities, so it’s always operating at speed and with an infinite ability to adjust to change. The brain is not hardwired, as was once thought, but capable of forming new neural connections at any age,” he says.

Capacity for change

This phenomenon, known as neuroplasticity, suggests the brain can change and heal itself of a host of physical and neurological ailments, from dementia, autism and attention deficit disorder through to multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.

Dr Merzenich, professor emeritus at the University of California is a pioneer of this idea that anyone can rewire and remodel their brain, regardless of their age, income or intelligence.

“The brain is a work in progress; the capacity for change is always there,” according to Dr Merzenich. “We can take the average 75-year-old and drive their performance so it matches the ability of the average untrained 30-year-old.”

Dr Merzenich says one of the ways of improving the brain’s structure and function is to continually expose it to new and challenging experiences. “Old brains go to hell when life becomes increasingly rigid,” he says.

Neuroplasticity in action

Neuroplasticity turns on its head the long-held belief that the brain stops growing or forming new neural networks from a relatively early age. Scientists are discovering that with the right kind of training and external stimuli the brain can become faster, stronger, more creative and more capable of recovering from decay, injury or illness.

In 2016, scientists at the University of Sydney found that high-intensity strength training and computer brain-training exercises could help combat ageing, dementia and some of the precursors to Alzheimer’s disease, such as mild cognitive impairment, partly by strengthening the connectivity between the brain’s memory centre and the frontal lobe.

Other studies show that cognitive stimulation exercises – like doing crosswords or puzzles, or learning a musical instrument or language – can help protect against a range of age-related disorders.

Scientists at Melbourne’s Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health have shown that brain training and physical activity can help slow the progress of Huntington’s disease and the onset of dementia.

“It’s a major revolution of science, showing that the adult brain is not static and fixed but is very dynamic,” says Professor Anthony Hannan, head of Florey’s Epigenetics and Neural Plasticity Laboratory.

Professor Hannan recommends five key ways of improving the brain’s health and healing powers:

  • regular physical activity
  • a healthy diet 
  • cognitive stimulation
  • reducing stress levels
  • sufficient sleep.

Professor Hannan recommends engaging in “lifelong learning” and other challenging mental and physical activities you find interesting. “The data shows that people who are more physically active, have a healthy diet and are more mentally active have delayed onset, on average, of Alzheimer’s disease and potentially other forms of dementia. There is similar data for Parkinson’s disease.”

Treatment potential

Canadian psychiatrist Norman Doidge has helped popularise neuroplasticity by citing cases of people testing new approaches, without medication or surgery, for conditions such as multiple sclerosis, dyslexia, autism and traumatic brain injury.

His 2015 book, The Brain’s Way of Healing: Remarkable Discoveries and Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity, included the story of a man with Parkinson’s disease who retrained himself to walk normally through an exercise regime with almost meditative concentration.

In another case a psychiatrist with a neck injury reportedly taught his brain to block out pain by using visualisation techniques. While these anecdotal cases need to be followed with clinical trials, chronic pain is one area where neuroplasticity has great potential to help cure patients.

Pursue the positive

Professor Lorimer Moseley, head of the Body in Mind Research Group at the University of South Australia, says neuroplasticity can change the brain in a positive or negative way. Chronic pain typically arises when a patient’s brain over-estimates the risk of damage to the body’s tissues or adapts to suit their perceptions.

“A lot of people walk around saying, ‘I’ve got a bad back,’ and the reality of neuroplasticity is that the more you say that, the more your back will hurt,” he says. “But the other side of plasticity that is exciting is that we can turn these things around.”

Cognitive behavioural therapy and brain training exercises can alleviate symptoms over time by changing a patient’s perceptions and understanding of pain, Professor Moseley says.

“The thing we say to people is that you have to be patient and persistent and courageous. The potential is massive because our system has the ability to adapt right through our life. But if you want to keep adapting, you need to keep challenging the brain. People can become pain free but it can take months or years.”

The potential for neuroplasticity techniques to treat many physical and neurological ailments is “massive but not limitless”, he adds.

“We hit a lot of problems when we give the impression that neuroplasticity can help you achieve anything. That’s not right. You can change the brain’s software reasonably easily through practice. But you have to be realistic and not give people false hope, and not write off treatments supported by years of medical data, such as medications.”

Dr Merzenich says most people do a poor job of maintaining their mental health. The trigger for neuroplasticity is to continuously challenge the brain to operate at speed. He advises people to stop using GPS and smart phones for simple tasks and to instead try to remember phone numbers, email addresses and directions. He also practises meditation to activate underused parts of the brain.

How to retrain your brain

Spend 20 to 30 minutes a day on brain-training exercises, such as those on BrainHQ.com (part-designed by Merzenich), to improve your attention, cognitive speed, memory, navigation and people skills.

Practise throwing and catching a ball in the air or learn to juggle
Such activities enhance the visual, tactile and hand-eye coordination responses.

Become a child again
Pay attention to the world around you and make an effort to find new details and experiences, even in a familiar situation. When you stop learning, your brain stops developing.

Take the path less travelled
Walking on bumpy surfaces, such as cobblestones, improves balance and equilibrium.

Learn how to play a musical instrument
Regular musical practice exercises many interrelated brain functions, including listening, reading and fine motor control.

Learn to use your other hand
If you’re right-handed, use your left hand for daily activities (or vice-versa) such as brushing your teeth and eating, which forces million of neurons to learn new tricks and encourages positive brain changes.

Watch while you walk
Spend at least 30 minutes a day walking, running or riding while making a mental map of what you see and hear to improve your attention, memory and focus.

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