Not that long ago, the medical community believed that brain power peaked in early midlife … and then inevitably declined. It wasn’t exactly great news for those of us over age 40. But since the last century, we’ve learned a great deal about the plasticity of our brains. That’s good news for all of us.
“Neuroplasticity” refers to the ability of brain neurons to continuously change and reorganize to meet the dynamic demands of life. In other words, our brains can remodel themselves—and we might be able to harness that power using simple strategies, ultimately protecting our cognitive abilities.
The brain over time
When we’re born, each of our infant neurons has about 2,500 synapses. By age three, through the process of synaptogenesis, this number grows to about 15,000 as we start to acquire new skills and knowledge.
By adulthood, synaptic pruning has reduced this number by about half. As we age, this can become a problem that leads to misplaced car keys on a busy day, or potential cognitive decline over time.
It’s also worth noting that as we develop, small protein molecules that are secreted in the nervous system (called neurotrophins) can boost neural regeneration. Specifically, brain-derived neurotrophic factor enhances the creation of new neurons. This is called neurogenesis. Some research suggests that neurodegenerative disorders may be the result of changes in neurotrophic factors and receptors.
According to the reserve hypothesis, cognitive impairments begin when we’ve depleted our pool of structural and cognitive resources. The hypothesis arose from the observation that people with greater brain weights are less likely to have dementia, and that people who challenge themselves intellectually have less atrophy of the hippocampus. (The hippocampus is a seahorse-shaped region of the brain that helps consolidate information and supports spatial memory.)
In other words, the denser your brain, the better off you are. Read on for some simple strategies that could help build a better—and maybe even denser—brain.
White matter is found in deeper tissues of the brain and contains axons. It gets its pale color from the fatty myelin sheath that surrounds many of those axons.
Gray matter is found on the surface of the brain and gets its color from the cell bodies of neurons.
The olfactory senses are the strongest memory trigger. To lock in new information, diffuse some essential oils while you learn. Sniffing the fragrance later may help prompt recall. Of course, you probably can’t bring your diffuser to work/class or wherever you need to recall the info. So try dabbing some of the oil on a cotton cloth and packing it with you.
What’s going on up there?
Oh hi there, biology class. To understand neuroplasticity, it helps to have a little refresher on neurons.
A cell that transmits information to other nerve cells, muscle or gland cells through electrical signals.
The long, thin nerve fiber that conducts signals away from the neuron’s cell body.
Axons are often coated in a fatty myelin sheath, which acts like insulation.
Branchlike structures that typically receive signals from other neurons and transmit those signals to the cell body of their neuron.
Junction where a signal passes from one neuron to another.
Mental lapses often occur because we don’t pay attention when doing repetitive activities. To become more mindful of the present moment, shake up your routine. Brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand. Take a different route to work.
Research shows that mindfulness meditation is also associated with structural and functional changes in the brain, possibly due to neurogenesis, dendritic branching and synaptogenesis. It’s also possible that changes result from a reduction in the stress hormone cortisol after meditation. Cortisol has been associated with memory impairments.
Play mind games
Participating in brain-stimulating activities encourages the development of new dendritic branches and synapses, enhances the brain’s capillary network and increases neurogenesis.
To keep your brain weighty, learn a new musical instrument or acquire a language that will allow you to travel to a new destination. Alternatively, join an online video game competition. Research shows that challenging video games may strengthen white matter connectivity, which may improve communication within the brain. Offline socializing is also brain protective.
Exercise appears to protect both the structure and the function of the brain, with studies showing an association between higher cardiovascular fitness and reduced decline in brain tissue in older adults. Preclinical studies also suggest that physical activity increases adult neurogenesis.
In studies, exercise consistently proves to be beneficial for brain health at all intensity levels, possibly by optimizing brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Aerobic exercise improves attention, processing speed and memory, and regular exercise is associated with reduced risk of cognitive impairment and all-cause dementia.
No matter your age, physical activity improves brain function, learning and memory.
Feed your brain
Of course, food affects brain function. Diets high in sugar promote inflammation, which is associated with cognitive decline, as well as mood and neurodegenerative disorders.
Similarly, high-fat diets contribute to increased risk of neurodegenerative diseases and cognitive impairment.
Instead, fill your plate with fruits and vegetables and enjoy culinary herbs and teas. These polyphenol-rich plant foods may reduce risk of age-related cognitive decline, possibly by promoting synaptic plasticity.
Sources of polyphenols useful for brain health maintenance include curcumin, green tea and resveratrol. If supplementing, look for bioavailable forms of curcumin and resveratrol. Be sure to also include omega-3 fatty acids, which help build brain cell membranes. Probiotics are another smart option: research has shown they may affect mood and emotional processing in the brain.
A neuron’s best friend?
Vitamin B12 protects the myelin sheath, and antioxidant B6 protects neurons. Deficiency of B9 (folic acid) is linked to mental disorders. Supplement daily with B complex and choline to get all the B benefits. Still need convincing? Check out p. 38 to learn more about what B vitamins do for your body.