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People with large brain reserves can circumvent Alzheimer's. Here's how to build yours.
It's never too late to start strengthening your brain.
- Cognitive reserve is your mind's ability to resist damage to your brain.
- Brain reserve refers to the brain structures that provide resilience against neurodegenerative diseases.
- A certain number of people with Alzheimer's pathology never show symptoms; there are methods for developing this skill.
Not all brains are built equally. How you treat what you're given, however, matters. Around the world, 50 million people suffer from diseases of dementia. Ten million new cases appear every year. The neurodegenerative Alzheimer's disease accounts for 60-70 percent of these cases, making it one of the elderly's greatest challenges.
Fortunately, there are methods for keeping dementia at bay. Some people with Alzheimer's pathology never show symptoms of the disease. It all has to do with building up a brain reserve.
What are brain reserve and cognitive reserve?
Cognitive reserve is an individual's ability to avoid cognitive symptoms even when affected by a pathology such as Alzheimer's disease. This concept refers to one's ability to improvise in order to maintain healthy cognition, which requires co-opting other brain regions to accomplish new tasks. Your brain is flexible enough to change operational patterns to deal with challenges in novel ways.
Brain reserve specifically references individual differences in the brain's structural properties that affords one resilience against neurodegenerative diseases. An individual with a substantial brain reserve is able to tolerate age-related changes without showing clinical symptoms of disease.
Specifically, "The term 'cognitive reserve' is thus meant to represent physiological robustness within functional brain networks, while the term 'brain reserve' refers to differences in available structural neural substrates." Another way to think about it: consider brain reserve the hardware while cognitive reserve is the software running inside of it. The term that encompasses both is global reserve.
What you can do to prevent Alzheimer's | Lisa Genova
What is the physiology of brain reserve?
The cerebellum is one brain structure that contributes to brain reserve. Located at the rear of the brain, the cerebellum plays an essential role in motor control in humans. It is also involved in attentional capabilities, emotional control, and language processing. Damage to this region can result in poor motor and postural control.
The cerebellum is also the brain region that contains the highest number of neurons. This is important as numerous forms of brain plasticity occur there. This is what allows the brain to "change itself," as psychiatrist Norman Doidge phrased it. This skill—your brain's ability to change itself throughout your life through its ability to transfer functions to different regions—is the basis of cognitive reserve.
How it protects against Alzheimer's and other dementias
In a word: neuroplasticity. Doidge writes about a nun who, after suffering a stroke, continued to solve complex crossword puzzles until the day she died. There are other instances of teachers returning to work after having a stroke even though brain tissue associated with cognitive tasks has been destroyed. Their brains routed those tasks through other regions. People who are adept at any or all of the six skills below have a strong brain reserve, and therefore can recover from insults to the brain such as neurodegenerative disease.
Photo by David Matos / Unsplash
Six ways you can beef up your brain reserve
As with anything, the earlier you begin best practices, the better. That said, there is evidence that neuroplasticity is possible at any age. Maintaining optimal health through exercise, diet, maintaining strong social ties, getting enough sleep, not smoking, and limiting alcohol use are always important for brain health. The following six practices can help you build a strong brain reserve.
Never stop learning
As noted above, one nun kept her brain healthy by doing crossword puzzles. Learning a new language or musical instrument have also been shown to help keep your brain working optimally. As with physical exercise, brain exercises keep your neural connections growing. Curiosity is an essential trait for maintaining strong brain health as well. Remaining curious is one of the strongest protective measures for staving off diseases of dementia.
Utilizing all of your senses is crucial. That means stopping to smell the flowers. That also means being a tactile toucher—well, maybe not at the current moment, but in general. Listening to music is its own skill. Again, curiosity matters: if you're not an avid smeller, take a course in wine or perfumery. You're not only expanding a sense, you're helping strengthen your entire neurological structure.
Have faith…in yourself
Your relationship to aging matters. When middle-aged or older volunteers were exposed to negative stereotypes about aging, they performed worse on memory tasks. How you frame the inevitability of aging affects how you age. Resilience is a mindset. If you need inspiration, consider Tao Porchon-Lynch, who continued teaching yoga and ballroom dancing until her recent death at the age of 101. Whenever I practiced with her, she would laugh and say age is only a number, and her life proved it.
While offloading memory to your phone can have detrimental effects, doing so in order to prioritize things you have to remember—or to free up cognitive space to learn new skills—is a great use of technology. Keep your life simple by letting repetitive tasks be on auto-pilot so you can engage new challenges with full attention.
Say it aloud
There's an old trick that sometimes works when meeting someone new: say their name three times to remember their name. Not as in, "John, John, John." That's a quick way to lose a potential new friend. Think, "Nice to meet you, John." A little later, "Where do you work, John?" When departing, "Take care, John, hope to see you again." This trick not only applies to new people, but with everything you know. By repeating a fact or idea aloud or by writing it down, you're more likely to imprint it to mind.
Take your time
In the above example, repeating "John" three straight times is less effective than saying it three times over five minutes. If you commit a factoid to memory, space out the time you repeat it. Cramming overnight for an exam never works; studying for a half-hour every day for a week does. Take your time learning new skills as well as recalling what you already know. Your memory will thank you.
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Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.
In what is perhaps one of the weirdest experiments ever that comes from the category of "why did anyone need to know this?" scientists have proven that the Regimbartia attenuata beetle can climb out of a frog's butt after being eaten.
The research was carried out by Kobe University ecologist Shinji Sugiura. His team found that the majority of beetles swallowed by black-spotted pond frogs (Pelophylax nigromaculatus) used in their experiment managed to escape about 6 hours after and were perfectly fine.
"Here, I report active escape of the aquatic beetle R. attenuata from the vents of five frog species via the digestive tract," writes Sugiura in a new paper, adding "although adult beetles were easily eaten by frogs, 90 percent of swallowed beetles were excreted within six hours after being eaten and, surprisingly, were still alive."
One bug even got out in as little as 7 minutes.
Sugiura also tried putting wax on the legs of some of the beetles, preventing them from moving. These ones were not able to make it out alive, taking from 38 to 150 hours to be digested.
Naturally, as anyone would upon encountering such a story, you're wondering where's the video. Thankfully, the scientists recorded the proceedings:
The Regimbartia attenuata beetle can be found in the tropics, especially as pests in fish hatcheries. It's not the only kind of creature that can survive being swallowed. A recent study showed that snake eels are able to burrow out of the stomachs of fish using their sharp tails, only to become stuck, die, and be mummified in the gut cavity. Scientists are calling the beetle's ability the first documented "active prey escape." Usually, such travelers through the digestive tract have particular adaptations that make it possible for them to withstand extreme pH and lack of oxygen. The researchers think the beetle's trick is in inducing the frog to open a so-called "vent" controlled by the sphincter muscle.
"Individuals were always excreted head first from the frog vent, suggesting that R. attenuata stimulates the hind gut, urging the frog to defecate," explains Sugiura.
For more information, check out the study published in Current Biology.
Are "humanized" pigs the future of medical research?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all new medicines to be tested in animals before use in people. Pigs make better medical research subjects than mice, because they are closer to humans in size, physiology and genetic makeup.
In recent years, our team at Iowa State University has found a way to make pigs an even closer stand-in for humans. We have successfully transferred components of the human immune system into pigs that lack a functional immune system. This breakthrough has the potential to accelerate medical research in many areas, including virus and vaccine research, as well as cancer and stem cell therapeutics.
Existing biomedical models
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or SCID, is a genetic condition that causes impaired development of the immune system. People can develop SCID, as dramatized in the 1976 movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." Other animals can develop SCID, too, including mice.
Researchers in the 1980s recognized that SCID mice could be implanted with human immune cells for further study. Such mice are called “humanized" mice and have been optimized over the past 30 years to study many questions relevant to human health.
Mice are the most commonly used animal in biomedical research, but results from mice often do not translate well to human responses, thanks to differences in metabolism, size and divergent cell functions compared with people.
Nonhuman primates are also used for medical research and are certainly closer stand-ins for humans. But using them for this purpose raises numerous ethical considerations. With these concerns in mind, the National Institutes of Health retired most of its chimpanzees from biomedical research in 2013.
Alternative animal models are in demand.
Swine are a viable option for medical research because of their similarities to humans. And with their widespread commercial use, pigs are met with fewer ethical dilemmas than primates. Upwards of 100 million hogs are slaughtered each year for food in the U.S.
In 2012, groups at Iowa State University and Kansas State University, including Jack Dekkers, an expert in animal breeding and genetics, and Raymond Rowland, a specialist in animal diseases, serendipitously discovered a naturally occurring genetic mutation in pigs that caused SCID. We wondered if we could develop these pigs to create a new biomedical model.
Our group has worked for nearly a decade developing and optimizing SCID pigs for applications in biomedical research. In 2018, we achieved a twofold milestone when working with animal physiologist Jason Ross and his lab. Together we developed a more immunocompromised pig than the original SCID pig – and successfully humanized it, by transferring cultured human immune stem cells into the livers of developing piglets.
During early fetal development, immune cells develop within the liver, providing an opportunity to introduce human cells. We inject human immune stem cells into fetal pig livers using ultrasound imaging as a guide. As the pig fetus develops, the injected human immune stem cells begin to differentiate – or change into other kinds of cells – and spread through the pig's body. Once SCID piglets are born, we can detect human immune cells in their blood, liver, spleen and thymus gland. This humanization is what makes them so valuable for testing new medical treatments.
We have found that human ovarian tumors survive and grow in SCID pigs, giving us an opportunity to study ovarian cancer in a new way. Similarly, because human skin survives on SCID pigs, scientists may be able to develop new treatments for skin burns. Other research possibilities are numerous.
The ultraclean SCID pig biocontainment facility in Ames, Iowa. Adeline Boettcher, CC BY-SA
Pigs in a bubble
Since our pigs lack essential components of their immune system, they are extremely susceptible to infection and require special housing to help reduce exposure to pathogens.
SCID pigs are raised in bubble biocontainment facilities. Positive pressure rooms, which maintain a higher air pressure than the surrounding environment to keep pathogens out, are coupled with highly filtered air and water. All personnel are required to wear full personal protective equipment. We typically have anywhere from two to 15 SCID pigs and breeding animals at a given time. (Our breeding animals do not have SCID, but they are genetic carriers of the mutation, so their offspring may have SCID.)
As with any animal research, ethical considerations are always front and center. All our protocols are approved by Iowa State University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and are in accordance with The National Institutes of Health's Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
Every day, twice a day, our pigs are checked by expert caretakers who monitor their health status and provide engagement. We have veterinarians on call. If any pigs fall ill, and drug or antibiotic intervention does not improve their condition, the animals are humanely euthanized.
Our goal is to continue optimizing our humanized SCID pigs so they can be more readily available for stem cell therapy testing, as well as research in other areas, including cancer. We hope the development of the SCID pig model will pave the way for advancements in therapeutic testing, with the long-term goal of improving human patient outcomes.
Adeline Boettcher earned her research-based Ph.D. working on the SCID project in 2019.
Satellite imagery can help better predict volcanic eruptions by monitoring changes in surface temperature near volcanoes.
- A recent study used data collected by NASA satellites to conduct a statistical analysis of surface temperatures near volcanoes that erupted from 2002 to 2019.
- The results showed that surface temperatures near volcanoes gradually increased in the months and years prior to eruptions.
- The method was able to detect potential eruptions that were not anticipated by other volcano monitoring methods, such as eruptions in Japan in 2014 and Chile in 2015.
How can modern technology help warn us of impending volcanic eruptions?
One promising answer may lie in satellite imagery. In a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, researchers used infrared data collected by NASA satellites to study the conditions near volcanoes in the months and years before they erupted.
The results revealed a pattern: Prior to eruptions, an unusually large amount of heat had been escaping through soil near volcanoes. This diffusion of subterranean heat — which is a byproduct of "large-scale thermal unrest" — could potentially represent a warning sign of future eruptions.
Conceptual model of large-scale thermal unrestCredit: Girona et al.
For the study, the researchers conducted a statistical analysis of changes in surface temperature near volcanoes, using data collected over 16.5 years by NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites. The results showed that eruptions tended to occur around the time when surface temperatures near the volcanoes peaked.
Eruptions were preceded by "subtle but significant long-term (years), large-scale (tens of square kilometres) increases in their radiant heat flux (up to ~1 °C in median radiant temperature)," the researchers wrote. After eruptions, surface temperatures reliably decreased, though the cool-down period took longer for bigger eruptions.
"Volcanoes can experience thermal unrest for several years before eruption," the researchers wrote. "This thermal unrest is dominated by a large-scale phenomenon operating over extensive areas of volcanic edifices, can be an early indicator of volcanic reactivation, can increase prior to different types of eruption and can be tracked through a statistical analysis of little-processed (that is, radiance or radiant temperature) satellite-based remote sensing data with high temporal resolution."
Temporal variations of target volcanoesCredit: Girona et al.
Although using satellites to monitor thermal unrest wouldn't enable scientists to make hyper-specific eruption predictions (like predicting the exact day), it could significantly improve prediction efforts. Seismologists and volcanologists currently use a range of techniques to forecast eruptions, including monitoring for gas emissions, ground deformation, and changes to nearby water channels, to name a few.
Still, none of these techniques have proven completely reliable, both because of the science and the practical barriers (e.g. funding) standing in the way of large-scale monitoring. In 2014, for example, Japan's Mount Ontake suddenly erupted, killing 63 people. It was the nation's deadliest eruption in nearly a century.
In the study, the researchers found that surface temperatures near Mount Ontake had been increasing in the two years prior to the eruption. To date, no other monitoring method has detected "well-defined" warning signs for the 2014 disaster, the researchers noted.
The researchers hope satellite-based infrared monitoring techniques, combined with existing methods, can improve prediction efforts for volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions have killed about 2,000 people since 2000.
"Our findings can open new horizons to better constrain magma–hydrothermal interaction processes, especially when integrated with other datasets, allowing us to explore the thermal budget of volcanoes and anticipate eruptions that are very difficult to forecast through other geophysical/geochemical methods."