Brain research: Can neurons be retrained?

What does the new brain research mean?

Do you remember phrenology?

Phrenology was pseudo science that centered on the view that different parts of the brain had different functions. This is similar to what researchers believe today. However, the primary difference between phrenology and what researchers believe now is that phrenologists thought “researchers” could learn a significant amount about a person by the shape of the person’s skull. Today we know that the shape of the skull doesn’t determine what function the brain has, but we do know that different parts of the brain known as neurons are used for different functions.

Researchers today are now studying what the neurons are used for once one function is lost. If a person goes blind, for example, that function can be used to enhance the auditory portion of the brain so that the person may find things auditorily. The same is true in deaf people; the neurons in the brain normally dedicated to auditory functions can be used for other things.

The research seems to indicate it’s possible to either retrain or rewire the brain after certain functions and/or senses are lost. Studies like this may be groundbreaking for people in the near future. In addition, this research may lead to other kinds of brain research about the use of neurons and the developing of neurons for different functions.

Although my background is non-scientific, I’ve tried to understand a little about the workings of the brain, but have focused on slightly different things. Take physicist Stephen Hawking as an example. The noted physicist was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) when he was 21 years old.  ALS is known as a neurodegenerative disease which affects motor control. When Stephen Hawking was initially diagnosed with ALS, he wasn’t expected to live past his 25th birthday. (At the time of this writing, he is 70 years old.)

No one seems to know why Stephen Hawking has been able to accomplish so much in his life or why he has lived for so long.  Could Stephen Hawking’s incredible intelligence coupled with his inability to use the neurons responsible for motor control actually have increased or improved his ability to use his neurons in the frontal cortex?

No one seems to know.

Again, I don’t have enough of a background in neurology or the hard sciences to understand all of the implications of the research as reported in the New York Times, but do I definitely know enough to realize that the research is positive and hopeful for those who have lost their senses.

Good Intentions Make Life Better Lived

So says a series of new studies that point to life just being a little easier when we're coming from a good place.

We all know people that seem to assume the worst in everything; whining, complaining, dark clouds over a half-empty glass types of people. Aside from the obvious quality-of-life drawbacks in approaching the world this way, science shows that it does actually have tangible effects on the way that their bodies experience the world. On the other hand, the science supports that people with good intentions and positive attitudes, likewise, have a generally better experience in the world.

As reported in the Atlantic, a series of studies by a University of Maryland psychologist set to show empirically that have good intentions leads to more positive results. The findings? Food tastes better, pain hurts less, and pleasure is more pleasurable when one has a positive mindset. And what’s even more is that the perception of good intentions can have the same kinds of payoffs.

The study involved three “realms” of experience; pain, pleasure, and taste. In one study, participants were asked to sit in a massage chair. The chair was activated by either a human or a computer, and participants were able to see which was which. Consistently people had a more positive feeling (i.e. they enjoyed the massage more) when the chair was activated by a person than when it was activated by the computer. The second study involved a piece of Valentine’s Day candy given to people with an accompanying note. In one version the note read, “"I picked this just for you. Hope it makes you happy." In the other version the note read, “Whatever. I don't care. I just picked it randomly." Once again, the perception of positive intentions resulted in a stronger enjoyment of the candy from the Valentine’s note than the indifferent one.

The third, which sounds a little like the Milgram experiment on authority, was in which three groups of partners gave one another electrical shocks. The first group thought that their partner was shocking them unintentionally. The second group thought that the shocks were being delivered maliciously by their partners. The third group thought that their partner was shocking them in order to help them win money. Again, the perception of positive intentions decreased the experience of pain, with the third group being least effected by the shocks.

What the results of these studies suggest is that good intentions, and giving others the benefit of the doubt, will trump “expecting little so you’re never disappointed” every time.

A Brain Exercise a Day keeps the Alzheimer's Away.

My father died of Alzheimer's almost five years ago. When you lose someone with Alzheimer's disease, you lose them twice -- first when they start experiencing a decline in cognitive skills and recognition and secondly when they actually pass away.

My mom fortunately remains in good health and we are adamant about keeping her brain challenged so that she will never suffer his fate. To that end, I bought her a crossword puzzle book last year and a portable keyboard so she could revive her piano skills and learn to play some new songs.

An article I read this week confirming that brain exercise can be a deterrent to Alzheimer's ensures me my family is on the right track.

If you know and love an elderly person who might be endanger of Alzheimer's, here are some things you can do to help them get the brain exercise they need:

1. Take them to a bookstore and have them pick out some magazines or novels they will actually read.  Word puzzle books are also available in bookstores, as are  Bibles, which my mom enjoys reading every day.

2. Play a strategic card game with them -- one where they have to employ strategy and premeditate your next move. If cards aren't your thing, consider playing chess.

3. Challenge them to join you in learning one new skill a year. My family did this one year: we all learned to paint. Not only is this a fun way to bond, but you'll utilize both hemispheres of your brain: the logical side and the creative side.



Become a Fat Head -- Your Brain Will Thank You.

Foods with "good" fats make you smarter and more efficient.

Eating foods devoid of nutrients and high in sugar can create a brain fog, making it hard for people to concentrate, execute professional tasks, and remember things.

To resolve this condition, try eating some fat! No, don't eat butter-laden treats or Big Macs. Consider good fats proven to repair brain cells and boost the functioning level of your brain. Here are two recommendations below.

1. Nuts with Oleic Acid

You've heard nutritionists caution that nuts are high in fat. As far as the brain is concerned, that's a good thing.  Nuts such as the macadamia nut and the almond have high amounts of the fatty acid known as oleic acid. This fatty acid can help replenish the membranes of nerve cells in brain tissue, which are composed of 70 percent fat.

While shelled nuts retain helpful levels of oleic acids in their oil, the oil can turn rancid in nuts that are packaged too long. I personally like eating nuts fresh from the shell -- even though nut-cracking is time consuming.

2. Fish with Omega-3 Fatty Acids

I like a lunch that makes me feel alert rather than sleepy. So, often I open a can of wild-caught Alaskan red salmon to have with a salad. (Pink salmon will do, if red is too expensive).  If you buy small 4 oz. packets or cans with pull tops, salmon becomes an easily portable and convenient meal.

This fish and other wild, cold-water varieties benefit the brain because the oils and protein in the fish enable the brain to build better nerve connections,  allowing people to concentrate better.

Researchers at the Brain Institute affirmed these claims in a study, finding that lab animals fed with fish completed complex tasks 66 percent faster than animals fed carbs.  That's a convincing argument to avoid doughnuts and potato chips when you're on your work break!

Resolve to Better Your Brain

After careful deliberation, I have chosen two New Year’s resolutions that have nothing to do with how I look, yet will better both me and the world. Last year, just to do something doable, I chose to light every candle in my house, which was easy enough to do; considering that I also make a list of 100 goals to do between one birthday and the next (my birthday was in November, and my list is already 14% complete), I think a simple resolution is fair!

In 2012, I vow to do two simple things each and every day. Now, I must warn you against every day vows; they are the hardest to keep. The trick to them is to forgive yourself if you miss a day and to go ahead with the next day without beating yourself up! Whether it’s with exercise or eating healthy, vowing to smile at a stranger every day or to do an act of kindness, we’re going to have days when we can’t for some reason—or we are simply so busy it doesn’t happen—and that’s okay. Just get back on the horse again tomorrow, right?

My two 2012 resolutions are:

  1. (Personal) Do something novel for my brain each day
  2. (Community) Click to donate at, The Hunger Site, and every day (Incidentally, the last of these three helps me achieve Resolution 1!)

I actually already know that these are doable because I used to do them both every day before my daughter was born. Now that she is six and using the computer herself, I can even get her involved with me in both of my resolutions—and I know she will enjoy them as well.

I was inspired for resolution 1 by the Alzheimer’s Association book I received recently. Keeping our minds active and limber should be a high priority, I think. And when I went onto today I realized that I only click once in a while, while it used to be the first thing I did daily. I would love to add up enough butterflies to earn something really big; I have a tendency to “spend” mine as soon as they are available, which limits what I can do with them.

I would also love to finally finish my Year and a Day, complete my morning pages every day, and so many other things, but I know that those take more time and I haven’t been successful with them for more than three months straight yet. Perhaps for 2013…

What are your resolutions for 2012, if any?